Elizabeth H. Miller is a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E.
In April, I pulled into the parking lot of the Jelleff Recreation Center, home to one of the few regulation-size playing fields in Northwest Washington. I found the impeccably uniformed Maret School lacrosse team playing St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School from Dumfries. A dozen feet away, more than 100 public school children in the Jelleff after-care program watched television in the windowless basement of the building or played on their phones. A few kids hung on the fence watching the competition between these two private schools. In the parking lot, there were 45 cars from Maryland and Virginia.
One would expect a multitude of D.C. public school teams lining up to use this city-owned field. Instead, in the ultimate sweetheart deal, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has extended the Maret School’s no-bid contract to control the “public” Jelleff Recreation Center field for nine more years. Under the terms of this deal, Maret, an elite K-12 private school with 651 students, an endowment of more than $30 million and its own field space in upper Northwest, will continue to have exclusive rights to the Jelleff field during all after-school hours when sports teams practice and compete.
As a member of the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission, D.C. resident and parent who has kids in private school, I am appalled. When equity and access are rightly rising to the top of the national political agenda, how did the District government decide that public school youths would come last in a transaction for precious field space purchased with city taxpayer funds?
The city owns both the Jelleff field and the adjoining center, purchased as part of a $20 million deal from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington in 2009. The decision to enter into a no-bid contract with Maret was made after the sale was finalized. In exchange, Maret agreed to spend up to $2.5 million to convert the field to turf and maintain it and upgrade the swimming pool.
Residents complained that Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D) and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) had favored a wealthy private school with powerful parents over local schoolchildren. The city replied that its perilous economic situation after the 2008 financial crisis required this deal, which guaranteed an income stream from the rental.
The financial landscape in 2019 is very different. Evans said at our ANC meeting in January, "The city has never been more flush." There is no reason to continue a contract that limits access to D.C. children.
This year, our ANC passed a resolution calling for a fair and transparent request-for-proposal process, including a public meeting regarding the contract on Jelleff field. At the meeting, representatives of 10 schools said they would be very interested in time on the field. Laura Welles, a student at the public Hardy Middle School, which is situated directly across the street, said, “It doesn’t seem right that our sports teams have to sit on a bus for over an hour to go to a sports field across town for a ‘home game’ when there is a beautiful playing field in a public park just across the street.”
Our ANC continued to pressure DPR and the mayor’s office, passing a resolution recommending that DPR not extend Maret’s contract and calling for transparency during every step of the process, something woefully lacking in 2009. We were shocked to learn that Evans supported extending the contract, despite seven Ward 2 schools asking for access. Maret is in Ward 3. We later found out Evans’s son graduated from the Maret School.
The parks department unilaterally decided there would be no public RFP process and no other offers would be considered. We recently were informed that Maret’s no-bid contract had been extended. The District government has again chosen to reserve the field not for the District’s children but for the children of the powerful.
This extension gives one private school almost 20 years of exclusive control of a public field during peak hours. Meanwhile, students who attend Hardy must continue to travel across town in traffic for soccer games, missing one or two classes each time. The city champion Wilson High School baseball team must continue to cancel games because of rain accumulating on that school’s sub-par fields. The examples could go on.
It’s the bottom of the ninth with two outs, but it is not too late for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to step in and hit a home run for D.C. kids by stopping this unsavory deal. A strikeout on the mayor’s part would perpetuate the same tired politics of secrecy and elitism Bowser says she stands against. Which team is Bowser playing on?