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Private School That Pocketed Public Rec Center Is Tired Of Being Criticized By Non-Rich People

Photo: Katherine Frey (Washington Post/Getty)

Class war! Class war!

The D.C. City Council held an all-day hearing on Monday on the fate of Jelleff Rec Center, a beloved and historic community center that sits just north of Georgetown in the Nation’s Capital. Jelleff’s been a hot topic around town ever since the news broke that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation gave another decade of control over the vast playing fields at the public facility to the Maret School, an elite private school where annual tuition is $39,900 and which boasts of having more than $40 million in an endowment and cash reserves.

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Maret has had exclusive use of Jelleff’s outdoor areas on weekday afternoons ever since 2010. The deal forces the 100 or so kids in Jelleff’s daily aftercare program—an overwhelmingly minority group from nearby public schools—to play kickball indoors while the fields outside are used by bused-in teams from the private Maret, which is located two miles away. The Maret monopoly also means that all teams from Hardy Middle School, a public school located directly across the street from Jelleff, travel for home games; the Hardy baseball squad’s home field is an hour away from campus.

At the hearing, which was given a long write-up in the Washington Post, lots of Maret officials and parents spoke of how their school saved Jelleff in 2009, a time of economic recession locally and nationally. Maret paid to turn what were unlandscaped grasslands on the Jelleff lot into a state-of-the-art outdoor sports complex with artificial turf fields that could accommodate almost any spring or fall pastime. In exchange for what Maret claims was a $2.5 million investment, Maret got a contract from the city in 2010 that gave the private school use of the field for all prime afterschool hours. But D.C. has now been prospering for years—the city has more cash on hand than at any time in its history—so the mayor no longer has any good reason to put public resources up for sale to those with the deepest pockets.

Jelleff neighbors and parents at the nearby public schools have spent the last several years watching and waiting for Maret’s 10-year deal to end so they could get more use out of the rec center. But Maret and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation quietly made a back-door deal while schools were out that extended that sweetheart 2010 pact through 2029.

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In August head of school Marjo Talbott told Deadspin that despite dubious contract language and protests, she never doubted the public field would remain under her control. “This is not a luxury. It was an expectation,” Talbott said of the no-bid extension. (Talbott comes from a very connected D.C. family: Her brother, Nelson Strobridge “Strobe” Talbott III, was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.)

Connections seemed to be a big thing at Maret. Councilmember Jack Evans, D.C.’s longest-tenured elected official and a guy who is frequently hailed as the most corrupt politician in a city where corruption is as abundant as playing fields are scarce, was a leading force behind the 2010 deal relinquishing the government’s control over Jelleff; Evans’s son attended Maret.

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At the hearing, several testifiers railed against the secrecy leading up to the Jelleff extension, and begged the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser to reopen the contract to get a deal that doesn’t put the needs and wants of one private school over those of the rest of the city’s residents. One neighborhood dweller told of passing by Jelleff one weekday afternoon and seeing the large field occupied by just five goalies from Maret’s soccer teams.

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“No one ever explained why public school students couldn’t use the public field across the street from us,” a former Hardy Middle School student told the council, according to the Post’s story. “To allow a private school five days a week at the prime time is the epitome of private-school privilege.”

That testimony surely hurt the feelings of Ian Cameron, head of the school’s board of trustees. Cameron, a father of Maret students, told the hearing about how since news of the sweetheart deal broke, he’s endured accusations that the elite private school only got preferential treatment because of the money and clout of the parents who send their kids there.

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“They accused our children of being the, quote, ‘Children of the powerful,’” Cameron whined.

Cameron’s wife, Susan Rice, the former National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, was unable to testify at the hearing. As Cameron was singing the rich man’s blues, Rice was speaking at a gathering sponsored by Fortune magazine called, ahem, The Most Powerful Women Summit.

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Disclosures: One of the author’s sons goes to Hardy Middle School, the public school most negatively impacted by the deal with Maret. Also, Jack Evans once called him to berate him for writing that Nationals Park was being built with public funds; the dumbass argument Evans made repeatedly during his phone tirade was that all the money used to build the stadium, a tab that eventually hit about $1 billion, would come from new taxes implemented specifically for that project, and therefore those tax revenues couldn’t be called “public money.”

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