The Education Mysteries, Tale #2: Ellington Field

[Ed Note: This is the second installment in a new series on this blog, consisting of tales of missing public education information and active disinformation by a wide variety of city actors (and all before the current pandemic!). To see the first in the series, click here.]

Tale #2: The Mystery Of Ellington Field

Some time in February, Ellington Field–the field that belonged for most of a century by court order to DCPS’s Duke Ellington High School of the Arts–was officially transferred from DCPS to the department of parks and recreation (DPR). Despite many appeals to the DC city council and to the deputy mayor for education (who has oversight of both DPR and DCPS) explicitly asking for the terms of the use agreement before the transfer and assurance that Duke Ellington high school would have first priority use among all users, no one in the public knows what the terms of that transfer really are; what use of the field the high school (or any DCPS school) is allowed; and whether Duke Ellington will be able to provide credited programming there ever again.

The Ellington transfer happened because Mayor Bowser gave Maret, a private school, exclusive use of a nearby public field, Jelleff. In the wake of public protest against the Jelleff deal, Bowser then transferred Ellington Field from Duke, to make it a public recreation center kinda sorta standing in for Jelleff.

So it was that despite opposition of parents, neighbors, and many others (see here and here for a few), this unprecedented transfer of an asset of a DCPS school, actively used by students, for the immediate and lasting benefit of those not necessarily affiliated with DCPS happened without much fanfare.

A short time later, on the afternoon of March 3, the private Maret school (yes, that same one) was photographed using Ellington Field. On its website, Maret had posted a spring schedule of activities it was hosting at Ellington Field.

All of this was quite some news to Duke Ellington HS staff, who apparently had no idea of Maret’s activities at the field that day beforehand–much less that the field had been, by that point, officially transferred from Duke’s control.

(Yes: Literally no one from the deputy mayor’s office apparently said anything to anyone at Duke Ellington HS about the transfer to that point. But you can see the deputy mayor’s letter on the transfer, dated February 20, posted on this website.)

Anyhoo, Maret’s March Ellington excursion resulted in incredulous neighbors asking what was happening, given a DPR promise that nothing would change at the field until the Ward 2 special election in June. At the same time, the deputy mayor for education said that Maret didn’t have permission from DPR to use the field–while Maret’s athletic director allegedly asked DPR to use the field.

The deputy mayor then noted in an email to me that “in the absence of any strong, active management of the field by Duke Ellington,” Maret had been using Ellington Field–thereby blaming the school that had its own field taken away weeks before for what another school was doing at that field without its knowledge or, apparently, official permission from the actual agency that *actually controlled it* at that moment!

All of this transpired more than a week before the end of school in the pandemic. It was also while we had official email, phone, and other communication services fully available to every person involved.

(Or, as deputy mayor of education Paul Kihn might say, in the absence of strong, active communication about public assets by the very city leaders with oversight of those public assets, the public is screwed.)

Now, not only do we STILL not have any idea what the transfer terms are for Ellington Field, but FOIA requests I made on December 31, 2019 concerning other similar arrangements between the two agencies are still outstanding.

Specifically, I had asked via FOIA both DCPS and DPR to provide user agreements between DCPS and DPR for publicly owned assets that are used by DCPS students for school activities *and* administered and/or owned by DPR.

I asked because the transfer of Ellington Field would likely require a user agreement commensurate with those. I figured that with those agreements in hand, parents could craft a user agreement with DPR and DCPS that would prioritize use of the field by Duke Ellington high school, akin to use of assets by schools like Watkins and Stoddert, with co-located recreation centers.

As it turns out, that was very, wildly, aspirational:

In response to my FOIA request, DPR sent only a few agreements, for a subset of pools, with the idea that the rest would come later.

I am still waiting.

But DPR’s response is much better than the response of DCPS.

After an unexplained delay without an extension (i.e., well past the statutory deadline), the FOIA officer for DCPS, Eboni Govan, said in an email to me that DCPS staff had been unable to locate any responsive documents. Possibly worse, Govan also noted that the fact that nothing had been produced at that late date suggested that DCPS simply “didn’t retain responsive copies.”

I then sent Govan DPR’s (partial) production linked above, noting that it would appear that DCPS is negligent with respect to its contracting if it cannot locate even the subset that DPR provided, given that those pool contracts amount to the better part of $1 million annually.

And then, not long after, a miracle: DCPS produced what it called a partial response!

Heh: It was essentially what I had received from DPR (see here).

Shortly thereafter, DCPS moved to quickly call it a day and closed out my FOIA request.

And so the mystery continues (cue once more the cheesily scary organ music!):

Will the public ever know what the actual use agreement for Ellington Field is?

Will Duke Ellington high school be able to use its old field for credited programming?

Will private school Maret continue to use Ellington Field whenever and however it wishes?

Will the public ever see those missing use agreements between DPR and DCPS?

Will DCPS actually be able to keep track of its contracts?

AND, most incredibly,

What other actively used DCPS schools will be stripped of their assets by order of the mayor for political purposes?

(Come to think of it, maybe all this is not such a mystery after all.)

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