Staff Editorial: Lack of transparency worsens field-closure debacle

Janney Elementary School has a variety of outdoor recreation spaces. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

Something is wrong at various D.C. playing fields, and the officials in charge have been reluctant to even say where.

About a month ago, news trickled out anecdotally that the D.C. Department of General Services, which is responsible for the city’s public facilities, had shuttered or restricted outdoor play areas at certain schools and parks. As first described to The Current by Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh and later confirmed by the agency, the issue was that the spaces had inappropriately hard artificial turf surfaces that failed the city’s “g-max” shock absorption test.

But the General Services Department stayed strangely silent on the issue. For weeks, officials didn’t respond to questions from Council member Cheh — who chairs the committee that oversees the agency — or the media, not even sharing a complete list of affected facilities until after a damning DCist report on Monday.

According to DCist, the list of 16 affected locations includes four with ongoing repairs as of Wednesday: Janney and Eaton elementaries, Brightwood Education Campus and the Adams campus of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. The city has already completed repairs at six schools and six public recreation facilities, including Ross and Mann elementaries; Wilson and McKinley high schools; Upshur Park; and Jelleff Recreation Center.

This information is trickling out nearly a month after the start of classes, and only after most sites have reopened. There was little to no warning in advance. Students returned to classes across the city only to find that their expected play areas were unexpectedly closed. At Eaton, we’ve heard that students must give up part of their recess time to walk to a nearby public park, and we expect similar sacrifices are taking place elsewhere. Even more alarmingly, DCist reports that city officials allowed Janney students to use its playing field for months after it failed the “g-max” test early this year.

We find the playground situation disgraceful and frankly absurd. It’s bad enough that the District failed to build and maintain safe play facilities, but officials’ refusal to tell citizens or elected officials what was happening is unconscionable.

We hope Council member Cheh will use her committee authority to hold a hearing on the issue, and to compel the relevant officials to explain just what they were thinking at every stage of this debacle.