Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Around a hundred D.C. residents and community leaders crowded into a room at the Georgetown Neighborhood Library earlier this week to express their frustrations at the Department of Parks and Recreation’s imminent takeover of an athletic field in Ward 2.

Next month, management of Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ athletic field will officially be transferred from DC Public Schools to DPR, shortly after the public comment period ends on Feb. 12.

In the final pre-transfer public meeting Wednesday, DPR and DCPS representatives sought to assuage local residents’ fears.

“This is a field that obviously has many demands,” Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn told the crowd. “It’s got community demands, it’s got school demands, and we’re trying to resolve a number of different challenges related to the various demands and various uses of the field. And when we look around at our city agencies that we believe are best positioned to manage a field for community use, for permitting use, and for school use, we believe that is DPR.”

Local community members, many who live in Ward 2, were not convinced, and raised a number of concerns in the hour-and-a-half session that sometimes grew heated. 

In a highly-criticized deal last year, DPR gave Maret School, a private school in Northwest, priority access to the Jellef Recreation Center during the school year through 2029. 

That deal has created a lack of trust toward DPR.

“People are just not sold on DPR after what happened at Jellef,” ANC 2E01 Commissioner Kishan Putta tells City Paper. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the will of the people. Not one person [at the meeting] said, ‘Transfer it.’ Not one person said transferring is what they want. Nobody said they buy the argument.”

Eric Langenbacher, the president of the Burleith Citizens Association, noted that Ward 2 is currently without a representative on the D.C. Council after the resignation of Jack Evans, and asked that the transfer be postponed. 

“With all this to take place without proper representation feels completely disenfranchising,” Langenbacher said, eliciting applause. 

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Tommie L. Jones, Jr., DPR’s chief of external affairs, later said that the department does not plan on extending the deadline of the intent to transfer. The transfer was originally scheduled to go through on Dec. 14, but DPR extended the comment period by 30 business days after sustained outrage from the community.

Residents at the meeting criticized DPR for its poor communication and repeatedly raised issues about space and parking in the Burleith neighborhood where the field is located.

As it works now, Ellington has priority for the athletic field, which includes a 320-meter track. The school uses it for physical education classes and also band and track practices. 

After the transfer, Ellington, Hardy Middle School, and School Without Walls will have priority access to the field, according to the draft language posted by DPR. The department will work closely will each school to determine when they need the field, Jones said, while also opening a permitting process.

“DPR will permit and manage the field under the regulations during hours not scheduled by public schools,” Jones said. “Duke Ellington, Hardy, and School Without Walls will have first priority. We’re not hiding away from it.”

And while DPR chief of staff Ely Ross told the crowd that DPR’s intent is “not to execute a longterm deal on this field” except the existing non-exclusive use contract with Georgetown University’s track and field teams, which Ross says runs until 2023, residents are skeptical. 

That promise has not been put in writing.

“The community really needs reassurance because they did not expect to be ignored the way they felt they were ignored in the Jelleff agreement,” Putta says.

Parents of students at Ellington, Hardy, and School Without Walls expressed doubts at how the relatively small field will handle the needs of all three schools. 

A local resident summed up the feeling in the room when she asked, “Who benefits from the transfer?” In response, DCPS Deputy Chief of Facilities Andrea Swiatocha cited DPR’s resources.

“Across the city, when a school is not using a field or playground, our school staff leaves at the end of the day,” she said. “They’re also not there on the weekend, and we don’t necessarily have staff to keep that open for a community asset. This is a common issue that we face. Sometimes parent groups work together to advocate to keep a playground open … By working with DPR instead, they have resources. They have rangers to open and close things, they can help us maintain it …”

Martin Welles, the vice president of the Hardy Middle School PTO, didn’t buy it, responding that he has tried and failed to get a hold of a park ranger.

“Zero times!” he shouted. “I call all the time. They don’t show up.”

Once the transfer goes into effect, DPR will work with the Department of General Services to figure out design elements of the field and pick an architect, which Jones called the “capital construction phase.”

A neighborhood survey published by the Burleith Citizens Association late last year revealed that at least of quarter of the 186 respondent “strongly disagreed” with any major changes to the field like adding lights, expanding the track or field, or adding a dog park.

DPR has not put forth any specific plans for potential changes, but Jones assured the crowd there will be a period where the department will hold meetings with the public. By then, DPR will officially have control of the field.