Bend Over and Take One for the Team
After six months of study, the T.H. Rogers playground issue has been settled, proving once and for all that Jeff Shadwick, trustee with the Houston Independent School District, should get an A-plus in Power Levels 101.
Last October, when parents at the combined elementary-middle school resumed complaining that all their playground area was being devoted to Little League baseball, Shadwick told them there was "no solution to this thing that is not going to include those four baseball fields."
And that's exactly what happened when a new five-year lease was approved last week -- still eight months ahead of when the old lease was due to run out. The four fields stand, not a one moves to another park. The board vote was 6-0 with abstentions from Laurie Bricker, Olga Gallegos and Lawrence Marshall because of their ties to the YMCA. It has a reciprocal facilities use agreement with Rogers and the Little League and is party to the lease agreement.
One small indication that the fix was in was when John A. Magness, acting president of the Post Oak Little League, and Harry Holmes, president of the Post Oak Pony League, spoke at last Thursday's board session, thanking the trustees before they voted.
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Another might have been the February 27 president's message on the POPL site, in which Holmes laid out the league's capital projects on the Rogers fields. "Lighting, electrical, fencing and infield improvements have been completed." On schedule for this summer, "building a larger scorer's tower, updating dug-outs and on-deck areas adding men's and women's bathrooms." Doesn't sound like someone afraid of losing his lease.
What wasn't included anywhere in the new lease were the track and soccer field asked for by the group of Rogers parents calling themselves Fields For All. There was also no mention of drainage work on the small piece of playground the school does have, a plot of land prone to flooding and runoff problems.
Still, the Fields For All folks declared themselves content with the agreement, which they, too, knew about ahead of time. Their happy message came via a press release -- none of them spoke at the school board meeting -- in which they said that "the agreement balances the school's need to assure the safety of our students with the leagues' desire to continue using the schoolyard for baseball and other athletics."
The press release says Rogers parents are working with HISD, an architect and the Little League to "develop plans for needed improvements while minimizing changes to baseball facilities that the leagues have developed over the last 20 years."
Thing is, the Fields For All folks already had oral agreements backed up with e-mails months ago that the baseball field construction crews wouldn't work on campus during the day (thereby endangering a lot of schoolkids, especially the hearing-impaired who go to Rogers), that workers would check in at the office and wear identification badges, and that some of the green mesh fences between fields would be removed as needed for better line of sight between teachers and their pupils during the school day.
So it's a little tough to see what they gained in the formal lease agreement.
HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne insists the district is still committed to a track and soccer field at Rogers. "Just because it's not in writing in the lease, doesn't mean it's not going to happen," she said. "We will not renege on what we have told the parents."
Asked how the already desperately cash-strapped district was going to come up with the money to pay for such an enterprise, Browne said there was some funding from the most recent bond election they can tap into. Also, she said, the parents have said they're willing to raise the money.
They have a little time to work with in this gentleman's agreement with Superintendent Kaye Stripling. Her own contract, due to expire August 31, 2004, could be renewed for another year on September 1 of this year, Browne said. Of course after that, with memories fading and nothing in writing anywhere, the parents might be out on their own.
The dispute over the fields was highlighted by the fact that the Little Leaguers are by and large white, affluent male children, many of whom don't attend school in HISD but go the private route instead. Rogers schoolkids, about 50-50 boys and girls, are ethnically diverse with 30.6 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian, 20.5 percent African-American and 27.8 percent white or other. Students go to Rogers because they're deaf, multiply handicapped or Talented and Gifted. Their parents come from all over the city, and not nearly as many of them line up in the affluent ranks.
At a certain point in the Rogers debate, trustees were saying they had removed themselves from the process, handing it over to Stripling as a purely administrative matter. Trustees ducked a proposed tour of Rogers offered by the school principal, Nancy Manley, because, as Shadwick put it: "It's Kaye Stripling's job to run the district."
So why then did Magness thank Stripling and Shadwick "for all your tireless work" last week?
As they left the HISD administration building, Magness and Holmes laughed and congratulated each other for a job well done. Magness expressed amazement that no one from the other side had spoken. They must not have signed up; they didn't even call their names, Holmes replied.
"We really need to take Shadwick to dinner," said Magness grandly.
"Yeah, we do," Holmes agreed.
And off they sauntered, Masters of the Universe one and all.
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