By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Well, it's January 2003 and a decision about the playground at T.H. Rogers education center seems far away. Houston school trustees adroitly skippity-hopped their way out of this minefield and handed the mess off to Superintendent Kaye Stripling. They're out of it. No micromanaging for them. At least officially.
On one side there are a lot of boys who play baseball on the palatial fields at the school at 5840 San Felipe, fields leased, developed and paid for by the Post Oak Little League. And there are their parents, who've shelled out registration fees, clinic fees and building donations to make those fields what they are today. These are parents with an impressive amount of power in the community. Many of their kids attend private schools.
On the other side there are a lot of boys and girls who go to school at T.H. Rogers. Apart from the baseball fields, there isn't a whole lot of playground area left for them. While they are allowed to be on the ball fields during the day -- if Little League maintenance crews aren't working -- the configuration isn't useful for many sports other than baseball, softball and kickball. They'd like a soccer field and a track, especially for all the kids with multiple handicaps who attend Rogers. Many of these parents do not have a great deal of clout, nor an enormous amount of money. All of their kids attend public schools in HISD.
Last spring, Rogers parents initiated a move to regain more of their playground (see "Power Plays," October 24). They reintroduced the effort this fall but agreed to be quiet during the weeks leading up to the early-November bond election. But in October, they discovered the Little League folks wanted an immediate renewal of their lease -- due to expire in December 2003 -- more than a year early. The go-to guy on the board, Jeff Shadwick, carried the league's proposal to the school district's legal department. He also met with a small group of Rogers parents in October, telling them the matter would be settled within days.
Well, after a lot of outcry, the HISD trustees decided not to vote on the matter on November 7. They also decided against taking it up on December 12, although they did listen to a list of alternatives from Rogers parents at that day's school board meeting.
These parents from the three sectors of the school -- talented and gifted, deaf and multiply impaired -- looked for a champion among the trustees. No one stepped forward. This was a matter for the administration, parents were told; this was Kaye Stripling's bailiwick. One parent compared it to being faced with a group of Stepford wives, one smiling facade after another with nothing behind them other than a lockstep approach to avoid controversy.
And Stripling, it seems, is in no hurry to do anything. She's thinking it over. She has until December 2003 after all, she said.
But as anyone would conclude from the building anger and increasing mean-spiritedness on both sides, Stripling really doesn't have all that time. Spring soccer beckons. As for the Little League and Pony League, they'd already hoped to be under way with $250,000 in field improvements -- but won't till they have a new lease. What superintendent in her right mind needs this kind of distraction when there's the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to negotiate as well as a $154 million budget shortfall?
While Stripling mulls, supporters of Fields For All, the group that would like to see the fields reconfigured for a variety of activities at Rogers, have been gathering data. Rogers students are ethnically diverse, with 30.6 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian, 20.5 percent African-American and 27.8 percent white or other.
The Little League players, according to Fields For All, are 4 percent Hispanic, less than 1 percent Asian or African-American and 95 percent white/other.
The student body is 51 percent male, 49 percent female, according to Fields For All research, while "only males" were on the Little League rosters.
More than 50 percent of those Little League kids don't attend public school. Instead, they go the private route, specifically 20 percent at Kinkaid, 10 percent at St. Michael (Roman Catholic), 9 percent at St. Francis, 9 percent at St. John (Episcopal) and 5 percent at River Oaks Baptist.
The fields do not provide the access required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is especially galling at a school with multiply impaired students. Most recently, amid the high winds and rain that hit the area at the end of December, a lengthy section of middle field fences and a 40-foot pole came crashing down. While the fields themselves are in beautiful condition, the facility is old with towers made of wood, which has been banned for eight years now, according to Fields For All.
"Unless this is a baseball prep school, this isn't what our playground should look like," said parent Lunze Hu.
When the Rogers parents began asking, they wanted a track and a reconfiguration of the fields, overlaying, say, two baseball outfields with a soccer field. They also asked that some of the fencing come down.
When the Little League and the Pony League (which is a separate organization and has never had a lease with HISD for its field) said no way to the soccer field, Rogers parents began to entertain larger notions. Why not evict the leaseless Pony League? Why not move the new Pee Wee field to another school, another park? Why not build a field suitable for football and soccer? They'd like a pavilion. And why not an area for environmental experiments?
The Pony and Little Leagues in turn began giving over their Web sites to diatribes against Fields For All. "When they say 'Fields For All' they actually mean 'No Fields For Y'all' " was the heading on one message. Fields For All is trying to "eliminate youth baseball and adult softball from HISD grounds for its exclusive, grandiose plans."
This, while the Pony League and Little League had invested more than $1 million in improvements to the property over the 20 years they've been there.
Despite a few attempts, representatives of the two groups never were able to pull off a meeting.
Relationships were little better between Rogers parents and HISD trustees. The trustees were invited to tour the facility accompanied by Rogers parents. None did.
As trustee Shadwick explains it, the invitation, which went out over Principal Nancy Manley's signature, was well intentioned but misguided. "This really put the trustees in a difficult position It's Kaye Stripling's job to run the school district."
As school board president Laurie Bricker explained it, what were the trustees supposed to do then? Retour the school with the Little League parents? Stripling wrote a letter to trustees assuring them she had the matter well in hand. Whew.
Rogers parents took to e-mail early, sending a flurry out to administrators and trustees. In response, an e-mail that was obviously meant for someone else went instead to a Rogers parent in October. "All of a sudden we are being besieged by letters from TH Rogers. I say we go slowly as they can hurt us on Nov. 5. From what I hear, Jeff told them 'no' so we need to be careful. I too will refer my many letters." The email was signed "L."
A Rogers parent e-mailed Bricker, asking if she was the author. Bricker wrote: "If you are speaking about a vague email from 'L' that could have been from me. I got into town late last night and returned all emails until very late. Sorry if I sounded vague. I didn't intend to. Laurie."
The Rogers parent, saying he did not want to misquote anyone, repeated the initial e-mail and asked again if it was hers. Bricker's reply: "I am not denying this email and I possibly did send it to someone though it is only a piece of what was said, it seems. I am also not about to deny my total commitment to the passage of the bond election. Too many people, including me, have spent too much time and money to make sure we can build public sentiment and pass the bond to build schools for our children. Any misstep can hurt our collective efforts."
Bricker said she and two other trustees, who have many Rogers parents in their districts, have continued to discuss the issue with Stripling. She is sure the superintendent will produce "a compromise that everyone can live with."
Tensions increased again when Jeff Shadwick was quoted as saying that perhaps what needed to be done was to move the Vanguard program. If these parents weren't happy with the status quo at Rogers, perhaps they'd find things more comfortable at another school. Some of the parents interpreted the suggestion as a threat.
According to Shadwick, that wasn't what he meant at all. "If a student body population that is mobile is not happy with their facility, then that's an option. Of course, they took that badly.
"It doesn't have to be you or baseball. It can be you at a location that you like better and baseball here," Shadwick. He said the whole idea is totally hypothetical but pointed out there's significant overcrowding at nearby Briargrove Elementary and that the district now houses 180 students at the YMCA next to Rogers, and those students could be moved to Rogers.
"These kind of issues don't really come up where there's a neighborhood component to the school," Shadwick said. "There's a Vanguard component coming in and making what would otherwise be reasonable demands that might conflict with the neighbors, so the Vanguard people are considered to be the interlopers."
HISD did send Abe Saavedra, executive deputy superintendent for school support services, out to look over the Rogers playground on the day before Thanksgiving. Stripling walked the grounds by herself over Thanksgiving vacation.
On December 5, Stripling met with a group of Rogers parents and later with representatives of Post Oak Little League. From all accounts, no promises were made.
Tanglewood Park, about a mile away, has become a chief discussion point. Shadwick said it could be a backup soccer field for Rogers. Rogers parents don't understand why it couldn't instead be a baseball field. Shadwick said a Pony League field wouldn't fit at Tanglewood and besides, they couldn't get it insured with baseballs flying out into Woodway.
And in an example of the Byzantine relationships that exist among the YMCA, Rogers and the Little League, Shadwick said if the Y could no longer have the Pony League field at Rogers to use for its own adult softball league, it was likely to be less willing to let Rogers use its fields for soccer and HISD to put 180 kids in school at the Y.
Eventually, Stripling wrote a short public memo that appeared in the Viewpoints column of the Houston Chronicle. This was not, she said, "a case of putting some children ahead of others. HISD already has many excellent arrangements with Little Leagues for the shared use of facilities." She went on to say there was a solution, but it would take some time.
She touched a nerve with her next statement: "Everyone involved in this issue has been supportive of public education and deserves to be heard." Well, as far as personal and corporate taxes that go to pay for the schools, yes. Stripling is apparently very grateful these people haven't mounted a major offensive to any school bond elections.
But it's kind of tough to match the phrase "supportive of public education" with people who don't put their kids in public schools.
The Fields For All supporters who showed up at the December 12 school board meeting came from a variety of backgrounds. They were eloquent and, above all, refreshingly brief.
"This is not about finding a place for a handful of our kids to play regulation soccer a few times a year. Nor is it about evicting the Little League from the property," said parent Tim Jenkinson, who has a second-grader in the Vanguard program at Rogers. "This is about extending the vision of equal opportunities for all of our students beyond the classroom to the fields that surround them. This is about rectifying oversights that have accumulated for 20 years."
The Rogers student council drew up a resolution, asking HISD to act in the best interests of students rather than "outsiders" first. Special education teacher Shelly Greenman asked for a flat exercise area for the 70 percent of her multiply impaired students who are wheelchair-bound.
Sarah Kelly, whose son, Adam, is in the multiply impaired hearing program, talked about the dangers to the deaf students who can't hear the trucks and machinery operated on the baseball fields during school hours.
Another parent, Anne Armador, echoed those concerns. She has two students at Rogers and told of the day her daughter, a kindergartner, told her she's almost been run over by a truck on the playground.
"The Little League parents are not uncaring or unfeeling people," Armador said. "I think these safety conditions have come about gradually over the past 20 years with the perception that the fields belong to the Little League. It has been forgotten that the fields are really a schoolyard."
The leagues have already made some changes, Shadwick said. The mesh is off the Pee Wee field fence and the fence itself will eventually come down, he predicted. He expects the playground drainage problems will be fixed.
Every HISD grade school is getting a pavilion, Shadwick said. Laurie Bricker said she has already asked that Rogers be "resparked" by the SPARK park project. At a minimum, a walking track would be added.
Shadwick said all ADA compliance issues will be handled separately. "All the safety issues are no-brainers. If it's any safety issue, consider it done."
Each year, Rogers hosts a spaghetti dinner for the Vanguard program to welcome new students. The Little League and Pony League are asked not to schedule any games that night because parking space is limited.
But last year, they still ran into trouble. One of the police officers hired to provide security came into the dinner shaking his head. It seems that while the official schedule was clear of any Little League games, some makeups for rainouts had been scheduled.
One woman became irate when the officer told her she couldn't park at Rogers that night because of the spaghetti supper. No, I'm with the baseball team, she said. Sorry, the officer told her, tonight the lot is reserved for the dinner. This isn't the school's parking lot, she told him. This is our parking lot. You tell them to get out, she told the off-duty cop.
It's not that hard to understand why Little League and Pony League parents want to hang on to what they've worked so hard to build. Houston has a dismal history of setting aside park space. Are River Oaks boys supposed to drive out to the suburbs to crack a bat, catch a ball, feel the wind in their hair? Inner Loop rich kids need green space, too. Sports provide valuable lessons in courage, determination and resourcefulness.
And in sharing.