By Chris Lane
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
On Tuesday, October 15, Houston school district trustee Jeff Shadwick took time out from his early-morning schedule to visit T.H. Rogers school and explain to a small group of parents why not too much is ever going to change about the crappy wedge of a playground their kids have.
The T.H. Rogers education center is known as Houston's go-to school for gifted and talented Vanguard kids through eighth grade, and educates a good share of the district's deaf kids and multiply impaired kids ranging in age from three to 18. As a magnet school, it draws applause and students from all over Houston.
Outside, the bright promises dim a bit. The elementary school playground is around back, its tiny area packed with equipment and a pavilion. It includes a small bowl-like open area where kids can run -- except when it rains and turns into a drainage ditch.
The lack of top-of-the-line recreational opportunities probably wouldn't be as grating if it weren't for the magnificent Post Oak Little League fields nestled up against the school. We're talking four Fields of Dreams here: red dirt, green grass, baselines so white they make you squint. Last year the league served 550 kids, according to former president Kevin Snodgrass.
Why couldn't the Houston Independent School District have envisioned the need for something like this years ago? Why couldn't it have set aside more space for the kids at T.H. Rogers?
Actually it did. That's the joke. It did. And it's leased nearly all of it away to the Post Oak Little League.
"I didn't even know those fields had anything to do with T.H. Rogers," parent Janet Brand said.
So last spring, Rogers parents began asking if they couldn't have some of that giveaway back.
More than a year before its present lease expires, the Post Oak Little League is proffering another one. The new document locks in the status quo for ten more years, twice the length of the current lease. If the league is going to continue to put money into the fields, it says, it has to be assured that its investment is protected, which is an understandable businesslike approach.
In fact, a businesslike approach was the order of the day when Jeff Shadwick met with Rogers parents.
"I think I'm the only practical one in here," he told parents.
"Don't give me that look again," he told parent Martha Jenkinson, who'd already differed with him on several points.
Shadwick said the deal should be signed in two or three days. When parents asked that the final decision be delayed if only by a month so that they could be heard and come up with a plan, Shadwick told them that asking for a seat at the negotiating table was just code for booting the Little League off its fields. Peggy Sue Gay, who has sons in the Little League and Pony League programs, and other parents protested that assumption, but to no avail.
And in best setting-the-record-straight style, Shadwick informed the group that while he wasn't saying he necessarily believed this, they should know that HISD's attitude is that you go to Rogers for academics. "If you want athletics, go somewhere else," he said. (Actually, the Rogers girls' volleyball team won the HISD city championship in University Interscholastic League play last year.)
In attempting to make sense of who's on first in this, readers should know that while Rogers falls within Shadwick's Tanglewood and River Oaks district, most of its parents and students do not, coming from all over the city as they do. And the Post Oak Little League board has some influential civic leaders, as does the adjacent Post Oak YMCA, which also has a part in this drama. In fact, some of those influential people -- "the guys," as Shadwick refers to them -- have been on both boards; Kevin Snodgrass, an office property leaser for Cushman & Wakefield, being one of them. And these people are the constituency that elects Shadwick to office.
And HISD, with a crucial $808.6 million bond election only weeks away, wants to do absolutely nothing to anger wealthy and influential captains of industry who could pass the word that maybe that bond measure shouldn't succeed.
So, near the end of last week's meeting, it was with no small conviction and some certain sense of political realities that Shadwick pronounced:
"There is no solution to this thing that is not going to include those four baseball fields."
In their initial request to principal Nancy Manley, parents offered options. If they couldn't get a field back, could the fields be reconfigured for multiple uses? A regulation soccer field would enable middle school students to move up to UIL-level play.
Under the five-year lease, which expires in December 2003, the Post Oak Little League gets to use the baseball fields after classes end each day and on weekends. The YMCA gets involved because it uses some of the baseball fields, too. In true synergy, the Y also uses the Rogers gym, Rogers kids can use the Y soccer fields (one of which is UIL regulation size) if the Y programs aren't using them, and HISD has a charter school with its 180 kids parked at the Y during the day.