More than 100 student athletes, parents, alumni, community activists and their representatives spoke passionately for over six hours on Monday, Oct. 21, about the use of the Jelleff Recreation Center athletic field at 3265 S St. NW during a District Council Committee on Recreation and Youth Affairs oversight roundtable chaired by Ward 8 Council member Trevon White.
The issue at hand was the newly extended usage contract for the Jelleff field, finalized in August by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and Maret School, a private K-12 school at 3000 Cathedral Ave. NW.
The new nine-year contract continues the arrangement made in 2009. It allows Maret School’s mainly high school athletes prime-hours usage of the field for 10 school weeks in the fall and 10 in the spring. In 2009, in exchange for the priority access, Maret committed more than $2.4 million to completely build a top-grade athletic field, fencing, lights and a swimming pool at the center.
In the new agreement, Maret has committed some $900,000 to upgrade and maintain the playing field in top condition and support renovation of the recreation building. Maret also has worked out agreements with Hardy Middle School at 1819 35th St. NW and the Washington International School to use the fields at specified prime times.
“Without the Maret investment, the field and pool would have sat vacant for many more years,” said Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans.
“We are confident that our good-faith effort to be fiscally responsible in continuing a longstanding relationship with an excellent partner was the best decision,” DPR Director Delano Hunter told the oversight committee.
But Council member White disputed that. As a result of this exclusive contract, Hardy Middle School students have to trek across town for after-school games and practices, he said.
Students from Hardy and the Boys and Girls Club testified that they felt left out of playing after school on the first-rate field when students who were not from D.C. got to play there every day.
A number of Maret students — many of whom come from low-income neighborhoods in D.C. — testified in turn, saying: “We are from D.C., too. Jelleff is our home, too.”
“In total, D.C. residents enjoy more than 76 hours [out of a total of 91 hours] of permitted field time per week, on a substantially upgraded field at little or no cost to taxpayers,” Hunter testified. “100 percent of the permits to more than 17 organizations, groups and leagues that hosted their games and meets at Jelleff in 2019 alone went to D.C. residents or organizations. More than 3,613 D.C. residents have enjoyed the pool. 1,300 people use the field weekly. Those numbers speak to the value and benefits that D.C. residents have reaped from this partnership with Maret.”
But times have changed, noted many of the speakers. Georgetown and the District are seeing exponential growth in the number of families coming to live in the District. The public schools are growing, as are athletic programs at elementary, middle, private and independent schools and at public after-school programs. The need for playing fields is increasing in every ward. Jelleff has one of the few regulation-size playing fields and surfaces in Northwest D.C.
“Even if Hardy doesn’t get more use under a new contract it doesn’t matter,” Hardy School Parent Association co-president Steven Brown told The Georgetowner. “More children across D.C. would have access. That’s what it is all about.” But Hardy and School Without Walls, a D.C. public charter school in the West End, would get priority under DPR rules, Brown noted.
As more and more speakers, pro and con Maret’s preferential access, made their arguments, the tenor began to take on a poor-man/rich-man, public school versus private school dispute. “Class war!” proclaimed provocative blogger Dave McKenna on Deadspin.
“But this is really about sharing high-demand times on a top playing field,” said Abi Paulsen, who has three children in three different public schools in the area.
“We don’t want to exclude Maret,” said Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Kishan Putta and Elizabeth Miller. “We just want prime hours shared. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll look for other ways to do it.”
Council members White and Mary Cheh commented that DPR should have handled permitting to balance the needs of Maret, Hardy and community groups, adding that they have requested information on similar exclusive-use agreements from DPR, “so that this situation can be avoided in the future,” said Cheh.