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Power Plays

Expansive Little League fields have taken over the HISD land from T.H. Rogers.
Monica Fuentes

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.

The effort, parents say, has been greeted with absolute opposition by the Little League and the Post Oak Pony League, which moved swiftly and effectively behind the scenes to stop them.

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.

HISD gets no money from the baseball leagues for their use of its land. On the other hand, it saves a lot of money because the leagues mow the fields and pay for the lights and watering.

According to Snodgrass, it's a wonderful deal for everyone and no one should question it. To do otherwise "will not win any battles," he said. "All it's going to do is put people in a corner and draw a line in the sand." Definitely counterproductive.

What's happened, he says, is that a couple of parents who choose to look at Rogers as a magnet school rather than a school for the handicapped are agitating for change. "When that school was designed, it was not the school it is today," Snodgrass said. "Years ago, when the Pee Wee field was developed, T.H. Rogers was pretty much a 100 percent handicapped facility. It didn't have a need or desire to utilize those fields. If they did, they would never have let us use those fields in the first place. But it was a win-win. It provided a place for the neighborhood kids to have a league and play baseball."

Rogers students can use the league fields during the school day for kickball or running, but there are difficulties. Chain-link fencing between the fields is covered with green mesh. There's no way a teacher can remain on the playground watching some of her charges while keeping an eye on the kids on the baseball field in the distance -- she can't see them.

Actually, according to parent Gay, the fencing on the Pee Wee field -- a field added just a few years ago -- was never supposed to be permanent and was to be removed during the off-season.

Rogers kids do play soccer with cones as goals on the Pony League's outfield. And seventh- and eighth-graders do play other schools using the YMCA fields, but Jenkinson says other teams don't like to come to Rogers because the games are shortened whenever the Y needs its fields.

Last spring, principal Manley went to Snodgrass and other Little League leaders to let them know some changes might be in order. The reception was, by most accounts, not a positive one -- Manley said only that they told her that "basically that there was a lot of money invested and the parents really liked the fields that were here."

Manley wasn't too worried because they had a lot of time until a new lease had to be drawn up.

This fall the issue got put off again. Parents joined in a code of silence, afraid any controversy might endanger the bond election.

But they started hearing rumors about the new contract and that the deal had already been cut without their involvement in any way.

Snodgrass and Pony League president Harry Holmes somewhat disingenuously say no parents ever called them, ignoring the meeting with Manley last spring.

Shadwick said he learned about the new lease in August when Holmes (of H. Holmes Inc., an office leasing company) handed him a copy and Shadwick became the point man.

Shadwick said the Little League needs to renew early because it wants to pump half a million dollars in improvements into the complex and it needs to get that done before the season starts in February.

There's also the matter of no contract to govern the Pony League field. The Pony League and Little League are separate -- each has different bylaws and directors (although the fellas do seem to know each other) -- yet the Pony League has been allowed to operate on the school grounds since the field was built in 1981 without a lease. No one has been able to explain how that happened.

Many of the desired capital improvements -- new lighting, grounds and drainage upgrades and construction of a new tower for storage and game announcers -- will be made to the Pony League field. Holmes estimated those improvements at $200,000.

 

Manley says when she became principal, she was unable to find any reference to the Pony League in the lease, so she called Holmes. She asked him to get her a copy of any agreement. He never called her back, she says.

Contacted at his office last week, Holmes said there was a contract but that he didn't know where it was. HISD subsequently confirmed no such lease agreement has ever existed.


After Shadwick learned Rogers parents were upset about the new lease, he met with principal Manley, district superintendent of alternative schools Debbie Singleton and league leaders. He got on the phone, went to breakfast, sent e-mails and worked out what he thought was a pretty equitable deal.

As he presented it to the parents: The four baseball fields stay just where they are. Rogers kids can continue to use the YMCA fields for practice. They also will be able to schedule four UIL games there each spring and will be guaranteed no interruption on the Y's one regulation field, according to Rob Douglas, Post Oak YMCA executive director.

Contacted at work, Douglas wavered between strongly endorsing the plan and explaining why the Y doesn't have enough space for its own programs.

What sealed the deal, though, was the e-mail he got from "a person with the Post Oak Little League," as he put it. "I e-mailed him that I just didn't see any problem in making this work, so we will make it work," Douglas said.

At the Rogers meeting, parents brought up the need for a practice track, especially for the wheelchair kids who compete in the Special Olympics. Shadwick was encouraging about that during the meeting, but after checking with the Little League folks, he e-mailed Gay that while the Little League would allow a track, it would not build one.

He'd agreed to propose that the green mesh be removed from some of the fences, and that the elementary playground area be leveled so it didn't collect water. In the follow-up e-mail to Gay, he said the mesh would be removed but didn't mention anything about the leveling.

Contradicting the messages relayed by Shadwick, Snodgrass still insisted that the Little League has not said it won't put in a track or a soccer field. "I have never told and I don't think anybody from the Post Oak Little League has ever told anybody from the school that we're not going to do something," Snodgrass said.

Rogers parents pointed to West University Elementary, which placed the backs of two baseball fields together so a soccer field could be overlaid in the outfields. Of course, to make that work, there are no fences between the fields. Shadwick told parents flat out they weren't going to get a soccer field. Kids could walk 200 yards to the YMCA, he said.


Rogers parents think Shadwick had his mind made up before their meeting. Several feel disenfranchised, and some are talking about filing a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the contract. By last Thursday they'd sent a letter to Superintendent Kaye Stripling and the board asking them to delay the vote.

At first, Gay felt empowered. "My goal really in all this was to show them that they couldn't go behind closed doors and decide this all. The good ol' boys aren't going to just shake hands," she said. "They're going to recognize we're here."

A few days later, though, Gay's e-mail took on a tone of outrage when she found out that the baseball leagues were prepared to grant almost none of the Rogers requests.

"Why must the use of HISD property for recess and PE play by T.H. Rogers children be relegated to the whims and wishes of the Post Oak Little League?…The wording of the fact that they will 'allow' us to put a track on 'our' fields also is a bit hard to swallow," she wrote Shadwick.

Snodgrass and Holmes make it clear that fields existed before the school, at least in its present state, and that they know how to work things out the best for everyone.

Nancy Manley, by all accounts a good principal, clearly hopes to avoid getting hit by any shrapnel from this. She has taken up the recreational issue, but at the same time describes her primary focus as "instructional and educational."

HISD seems to be waiting to see what happens after the dust clears. Its only action has been to have its legal department review the lease and put it on the November 7 school board agenda.

Jeff Shadwick repeatedly said he was trying to do the best for all the public involved and that he hoped it would never come down to his having to choose one group's interests over another.

 

Well, it did and he did.


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