DPR chief of staff Ely Ross
DPR chief of staff Ely Ross Credit: Kelyn Soong

Eric Langenbacher, the president of the Burleith Citizens Association, didn’t know what else to do. In less than two weeks, the Department of Parks and Recreation will likely acquire administrative control over Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ athletic field from DC Public Schools. It’s a controversial move that his association largely opposes.

So Langenbacher decided to beg.

“I’m almost a 50-year-old man, I don’t want to beg, but I’ll beg for a second,” he told Ely Ross, DPR’s chief of staff during Monday night’s ANC 2E meeting at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. “Please give us more time before you make any kind of irrevocable decisions.”

The athletic field, which includes a 320-meter track and is located in the Burleith neighborhood, has become the site of a contentious takeover from DPR. On Dec. 14, the minimum 30-day comment period will conclude, after which DPR plans to execute the transfer, Ross said.

Representatives from Duke Ellington and community leaders expressed their frustrations and anger on Monday in an occasionally heated meeting. Residents have been especially upset because the transfer will take place just months after DPR extended a much-disputed agreement with Maret School that gives the private school in Northwest access to the Jelleff Recreation Center during the school year until 2029.

During one particularly notable exchange, Jevelle Branch, the director of operations at Duke Ellington, revealed that DPR had not contacted her or the school’s principal during the transfer process.

“We’ve been working with DCPS central operations, which is our [counterpart] at DCPS, about this process,” Ross told her. “And once the field is transferred, that process with your principal and yourself will happen.”

“Is it possible to happen before so you can understand our needs? Because at this point, I’ve kind of, sort of been managing the field myself,” Branch replied.

Ross then told her that he would sit down with Branch at her convenience.

When asked by an Ellington parent about the rationale for transferring the field from DCPS to DPR, Ross told those assembled that his department will be able to improve the field, which is currently prioritized for Ellington students for school activities.

Community members also have access to the field, and the Georgetown University track and field teams regularly practice on the track. The university provided funds for track renovations in 2005.

“The reason we are transferring this field from DCPS to DPR is because this is largely a community asset that has been treated as a community park,” Ross said. “While serving Duke Ellington is necessary, beyond that it is largely unmaintained, it is largely unimproved, and DPR has the ability and the expertise to improve that field to get it to its highest and best use in a way that’s going to support Duke Ellington, Hardy Middle School, and School Without Walls.”

Ross added that while DPR does plan to introduce a permitting process, the department’s “intention is to prioritize Duke Ellington, Hardy, and School Without Walls.” DPR does not “anticipate” having DPR sponsored activities on the field, and has no plans to have a written agreement with any group besides Georgetown University, according to Ross.

But residents remain skeptical, despite Ross’ assertion that he would be “happy to put that in writing,” and took turns expressing their concerns.

Martin Welles, the vice president of the Hardy Middle School PTO, called the conditions of DPR’s fields “terrible,” in general, and questioned the department’s ability to take on more assets. 

Valerie Jablow, an Ellington parent, wondered why DCPS did not have a representative at the meeting. Ross later said that the transfer “is a joint decision between DPR and DCPS and DCPS fully supports our decision.”

ANC 2E07 Commissioner Elizabeth Miller questioned the effectiveness of DPR’s community engagement process in wake of the Jelleff decision. 

Langenbacher, speaking for his association, said that “there is almost unanimous opposition to anything that’s going to affect the parking situation.”

Others, like Ellington PTO president Howard Wilson and Kishan Putta, the ANC 2E01 Commissioner, simply wanted more time for the community to weigh in with their concerns.

“Speaking for myself, I don’t see the harm, as a sign of good will, to wait a little longer,” Putta told Ross at the conclusion of the DPR portion of the meeting.

A planned community meeting hosted by DPR for the week of Dec. 16 has been pushed back to early January, at the request of the ANC due to conflicting schedules in mid-December.

But that will likely come after DPR’s takeover of Ellington Field is official. Ross reiterated on Monday that DPR plans to move ahead with the transfer on Dec. 14.

“A lot of people are feeling really disempowered, which I can’t help but think is completely ironic in Washington, D.C., which is already disempowered,” Langenbacher tells City Paper. “I see on my license plate, ‘taxation without representation,’ so I think that of all people that would be sensitive to constituents … it would be D.C. government officials. It feels especially galling that they’re taking such an imperious view of this whole thing.”