The Legendary Public Rec Center In A Private School's Pocket

The Jelleff Rec Center pictured in 2009. 
The Jelleff Rec Center pictured in 2009. 
Photo: Katherine Frey (Washington Post/Getty Images)
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Every now and then comes a reminder that The System works precisely as everybody suspects it does and wishes it didn’t. The situation now roiling the youth sports scene in the Nation’s Capital is one of those. The D.C. government recently agreed to let the Maret School, one of the more elite private schools in town, keep control over who gets to use the playing fields at the Jelleff Recreation Center, a storied public facility located in Northwest D.C. and managed by the Boys & Girls Club on behalf of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

According to managers at Jelleff, the deal gives Maret a monopoly on the use of all fields every afternoon, Monday through Friday, throughout the fall and spring seasons, when outdoor scholastic sports teams need green space for practices and games. This effectively means that nobody but Maret and their invited and overwhelmingly non-public-school opponents will play baseball or soccer or lacrosse on what is supposed to be the people’s property. That means no outdoor activity for any of the 100 or so elementary- and middle-school-aged kids in the rec center’s daily aftercare program, which is free to city residents—kickball is only played inside the gym—and no practice space for teams from the public middle school right across the street. Maret, which was founded in 1911 as a French primary school, also gets exclusive use of the field for four Saturdays each fall and then again each spring, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the two weeks before school starts.

News of the agreement, which runs through the year 2029, began leaking around town over the weekend and immediately fired up the parents of public school students. In exchange for the exclusives, according to Jelleff management, Maret has agreed to resurface the artificial turf and build and repair fencing on the property, projects slated to cost from $250,000–$700,000, depending on who’s giving the estimate. With Maret’s tuition currently at $39,900 annually, that means as few as seven students from this school year (out of an estimated enrollment of 650 for grades K–12) could bring in enough cash to pay the bill to use Jelleff for another decade.

The new deal extends a 2010 agreement, which was also hammered out between the local government and private school officials with no open bidding and amid accusations of no transparency. For the first pact, Maret purchased access by funding installation of Jelleff’s original turf field and the remodeling of the outdoor pool, which required a substantially deeper dip into its endowment. Even so, few folks in town ever acted like this particular public/private marriage was good public policy, and lots of public school parents were counting the days until the deal would expire in 2020. A pair of public meetings were held this spring at which alternative future uses of the Jelleff fields were discussed, and the assumption of most attendees was that control of the public fields would be returned to public hands. Last Friday, word began to spread that Delano Hunter, acting director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and other officials from the agency were confessing their plans to stay in bed with Maret administrators for at least the next decade. Fur has been flying ever since.

“The last time, it was like they could do this because nobody was watching,” says Kishan Putta, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing residents near Jelleff. “This time, everybody was watching, and they still did it!”

Marjo Talbott, head of school at Maret since 1994, says the school went into the 2010 deal expecting to be granted an extension through 2029. Talbott says that since the school shelled out a seven-figure sum all those years ago to take Jelleff out of disrepair at a time when the city was considering shuttering the rec center for good, and has since held up its end of the bargain by maintaining the condition of the fields, Maret backers should feel no guilt about all that access. All those enjoying the use of Jelleff’s fields in off hours, she says, or during the summer or winter months when Maret isn’t using them, are benefiting from the deal. Talbott adds that anybody surprised or upset to learn the city has bestowed all the additional years on the private school wasn’t paying attention.

“This is not a luxury. It was an expectation,” Talbott says of the extension. “When people don’t like the result, they blame the process.”

Talbott read from what she says was the school’s contract with D.C. during her interview with Deadspin, but politely declined to provide a copy of the document.

The city has changed quite a bit since the 2010 pact. When Maret administrators initially convinced the local government to sell them the keys to Jelleff, the local and national economies were just starting to rebound from a deep recession. The population at that time was only about 600,000; there are well over 700,000 residents now, and the D.C. government is as flush with money as it’s ever been. The city recently allocated $7 million to rehab the indoor portions of the rec center, which makes the decision to take relative crumbs from the private school for another decade’s use of prime and public real estate even harder to figure.

“I begged [city officials] to just take some of that money and pay the [$250,000-$750,000] that Maret’s going to spend to get access,” says Bob Stowers, who has managed the rec center for more than 25 years. Stowers says somebody recently gave him a pamphlet from Maret that bragged that the school had “a $33 million endowment plus $10 million cash on hand.”

As rec centers go, Jelleff is a big deal in D.C. It opened in 1886. Stowers grew up going to Jelleff long before managing the place: A photo of him playing basketball there in the 1960s hangs on a wall. He was a regular there in June 1970, when a legendary prep showdown that D.C. hoops obsessives recall as “The Greatest Game Never Played” took place, a showdown between teams coached by John Thompson and Morgan Wootten, bitter rivals and both future hall of famers. He knows the club has benefited from the largesse of private citizens many times in the past. When Michael Halberstam, a D.C. cardiologist, hoops junkie, and brother of Pulitzer Prize winner and hoops junkie David Halberstam, was shot and killed in his Georgetown home in December 1980 by the bizarre celebrity burglar Bernard Welch, the Halberstam family honored his memory by endowing construction of an outdoor basketball court at Jelleff, dubbed the “Dr. Michael Halberstam Court.”

But Stowers says the deal with Maret has had an awful impact on the rec center, and that the worst effects are felt by those in the aftercare program that the city runs at Jelleff. Because of the agreement, the aftercare kids are stuck inside even on the nicest days. “If nobody from Maret shows up we’ll occasionally run outside,” Stowers says. “But you can’t ever plan anything.” The club’s kickball and flag football teams, which play in a city-wide rec center league, only schedule practices in the Jelleff gym. They have no home games.

Frank Mathews coaches baseball at Hardy Middle School, a public school with an enrollment of about 450 students for grades 6–8 whose campus sits less than 100 yards from Jelleff. (Maret is about two miles from the rec center.) The only playing space at Hardy is a small patch of artificial turf that’s okay for recess but no team sport activity. Because of the private school’s deal with the city, his Hardy team never gets to host a game there. Hardy was instead assigned a field at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy all the way across town. Matthews says that meant an afternoon rush-hour trip of “one and a half hours in traffic” from campus just to get to its “home” games.

Talbott says that Maret is aware of the complaints from public school advocates, and so last year agreed to let Hardy use the turf field from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. “on most Wednesdays.”

Marjo Talbott is inarguably right when she says that most folks acting shocked by the deal just weren’t paying attention. The D.C. government has long loved giving public property and public money for sports facilities to the people who need such help the least. The Nationals Youth Academy, where Hardy plays, is a complex rooted in promoting the hometown MLB team, which is owned by Ted Lerner, a multibillionaire who was recently dubbed “the richest resident in Maryland” and whose name always shows up at or near the top of any list of wealthiest professional sports team owners. Lerner’s Nats play their home games in Nationals Park, a stadium project funded with an estimated $1 billion in public money. Lerner didn’t pick up the tab for the Nats Youth Academy, either: It was built on federally owned land with mostly D.C. taxpayers’ money.

The city also gifted land and a reported $50 million (out of a projected total cost of $55 million) to build a practice facility for the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics, both owned by billionaire Ted Leonsis. When the project went way over its budget—final costs were at least $68.8 million—developers hit up taxpayers, not Leonsis, for all cost overruns. And D.C. donated the land and spent at least $150 million as part of a murky deal that ended with MLS’s DC United getting a brand-new soccer-specific stadium.

The city’s powers that be were also apparently on the verge of giving a sweetheart stadium deal to Dan Snyder, the Skins owner and easily the most despised human being in the market, that would have brought the NFL team back to D.C. proper. That pact collapsed when Jack Evans, the longest-serving elected official in the city and a guy who never met a stadium deal he didn’t love, found himself on the business end of an inconveniently timed FBI corruption probe. Evans, whose No Billionaires Left Behind worldview has been manifest in the projects he’s championed in his 28 years on the city council, admitted sending potential clients for his law practice emails outlining his pay-for-play schemes. Before news of the feds’ raids on his properties came out, Evans was telling associates that the Skins coming back to D.C. was a “done deal” and that a stadium announcement was imminent. (No such announcement was ever made. Evans has not been indicted, but the ethics probe has made him a punching bag around town.)

As it happens, Jack Evans was also seen as the power broker behind the original 2010 deal handing over the public fields to the private Maret School. Not long after that public/private marriage was made, news came out that Evans, who lived mere blocks from Jelleff, planned to send his son to Maret. He has since authored a D.C. Council resolution officially declaring Feb. 7, 2017 as “Maret 2016 Varsity Football Team Day” in the city. (Putta, a leader in the fight against the Jelleff/Maret deal, has announced that he will run against Evans in 2020 for his seat on the D.C. Council.)

“I haven’t publicly said, ‘This is corruption!’” Stowers, the rec center manager, says of the deal with Jelleff. “But that’s certainly what I’m wondering. How can you do something that goes against what such a large percentage of the public wants?”

It’s a good question. Several folks who have asked DPR’s acting director Delano Hunter and other officials from the agency to explain the Maret deal told Deadspin that they have received the same stock reply, some version of We think it’s in the best interest of constituents. 

“[Hunter] told me that, and I asked him how it’s in the best interest of constituents, and he repeated the same statement,” says Laura Smith, parent of a Hardy student who played soccer and lacrosse for the school, with no home games in either. “Basically, he said nothing. What could he say?”

Michael Tucker, spokesman for DPR, told Deadspin that in response to questions about the Jelleff/Maret deal, Hunter would issue a statement by the close of business on Tuesday. Nothing was released on Tuesday. On Wednesday, DPR sent a statement from Hunter that said nothing and didn’t even mention Jelleff or Maret. I told Tucker that the statement was unusable and asked if Hunter would please answer the questions. I have not heard back.

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.”