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Race enters school ball field dispute

(Published September 20, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Racial tensions appear to be tinting a dispute over use of an elementary school ball field as a parking lot for a nearby church in Shaw.

The Rev. Beecher Hicks, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, claims race is a factor among those who seek to stop his parishioners from parking on the playing field at Garrison Elementary School.

"There are some white persons who have moved into the community in the past few years who have no relationship with the church and who are trying to get their way," Hicks told The Common Denominator during a telephone interview. He said the neighborhood activists are unwilling to compromise on the issue during meetings between the church, the activists and the superintendentís office.

"There was never a spirit of collaboration on their part," Hicks said.

He echoed race connotations first voiced publicly by Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks, who was quoted recently in The Washington Post saying that, while working on a compromise, she "as an African-American" supports the churchís role in establishing moral values in students.

Most of the students at Garrison are black. The neighborhood around the school is multiracial.

The fight over the fate of Garrisonís field turned litigious Sept. 16 when a D.C. Superior Court judge issued a temporary order barring Metropolitan Baptist Church members from parking on the site.

The temporary restraining order was issued after a last-ditch effort by school Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to broker a compromise drew outrage from neighborhood activists. Ackerman proposed turning half of the playground into a softball field and the other half into parking for use by Metropolitan Baptist. The school systemís facilities workers would do all the work, under her plan.

"Itís an outrage that she would spend city money to build parking for a church," said Glenn Melcher, advisory neighborhood commissioner and the lawyer for the parentsí group trying to get the field restored. "If sheís building parking for the church using money intended for the schools, we intend to challenge that on the (doctrine of) separation of church and state."

School spokeswoman Devonya Smith said the school administration is still hopeful a resolution can be reached and that the facilities staff will continue to work on its compromise plans.

At the heart of the dispute is a decade-old use agreement between the school system and Metropolitan Baptist allowing the churchís members to park on the ball field. The agreement was renewed Sept. 3, with the church agreeing to pay the school system $5,000 a year for use of the land. Some parents of children at the school maintain that the weekly vehicular traffic over the years has rendered the field unusable and that the agreement violates the "compatible use" requirement for private entities that lease school property.

The fight intensified earlier this year when local developer David Hudgens offered to grade and seed the schoolís playground at no cost as long as he could get assurances that cars would no longer park there and he could get the work completed before the end of the planting season this fall.

"When we have an angel here ready to give us a brand-new ball field as a gift, weíd be remiss if we didnít take him up on the offer," Melcher said.

He said it was unrealistic to expect the school system to find the extra money in their budget to build the softball field.

"If Mr. Hudgens isnít allowed to give these children the ball field, no one ever will," Melcher said. "It either gets done now or it never gets done."

Hicks said that until the parking issue is resolved, the 3,000 church members will have to park on streets in the neighborhood.

"One of the downsides of people not being able to park in the field is that it spills peopleís cars out into the community," he said.

Despite having already negotiated for use of more than 300 parking spaces at the cityís Franklin Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW, Hicks said he canít force his members to use those spaces.

The temporary restraining order is in effect for 10 days until a hearing can be held to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be granted. If granted, that injunction will stay in effect until the court case is resolved. A status hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator