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Navigating the System
Despite many challenges along the way, DC Stoddert Soccer has grown from just a couple hundred youth to what is now close to 7,000 kids participating in its soccer organization. With the help of several dozen parent volunteers, DC Stoddert Soccer got off the ground in 1977 and has evolved into the largest youth sports organization in the District of Columbia. It relies heavily on access to public parks and athletic fields operated by the Department of Parks & Recreation as well as select schools within the public school system.
Former Executive Director Doug Homer suggests many necessary improvements to how community-based youth groups like DC Stoddert Soccer can obtain permission to use public school fields and facilities, which would allow clubs and other neighborhood sports groups to offer more activities for children and families across the city.
Current Process Leaves Kids off the Field
“The public schools, Parks and Recreation Department, and other interest groups all vie for the same playable space in a city that has grown tremendously but not developed adequate fields and parks to service demand,” he says.
Homer explains that while using school space for their programs offers kids an enhancement of what they’re already learning in the classroom, there are several shortcomings with the current permitting process including fees, politics and bias, and a general lack of transparency.
“For an outdoor sport like soccer, there are very few places in the city that you can go to that have both lights and an all-weather surface,” Homer says. “This puts groups like ours in a difficult situation – either rent space that’s not desirable or rent fields that are very expensive.”
High fees are one of the major challenges DC Stoddert Soccer faces. And adding to the challenge is that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation has introduced new legislation to the City Council that, when passed and enacted, will increase permit fees for use and create budget challenges – especially for a club that organizes more than 4,000 soccer games for youth throughout the school year.
Not only are expenses a large barrier, but the process itself is also a major obstacle.
“As far as the general process of how to apply for a field permit, you submit and wait for weeks until you find out if your permit applications will be approved. Unfortunately, there’s little room for expansion and more barriers to prevent you from serving communities,” Homer says, emphasizing that there is a lack of transparency in the process. “Those who do make the permit decisions are often overwhelmed and understaffed, which can delay the release of permits until the 23rd hour.”
In the current system, schools can claim that they already have too much going on to accommodate a group’s request or that space is booked when that may not actually be the case.
Not having a universal process and instead operating on an almost case-by-case basis is a major aspect of the process Homer believes needs to be changed.
“We just don’t have the time to meet with 35 to 40 different principals and write 35 to 40 individual proposals,” he said. “In a city of our size, it’s a problem.”
DC Stoddert Soccer has also experienced deliberate tactics to slow down the process such as administration giving them the runaround. “This just reinforces that there needs to be a standard process with a defined timeline,” Homer says.
He stresses the need for a process that’s universally accepted and can be enforced from elementary to high schools and includes charter schools. Suggestions include looking at other municipal governments for how they deal with the situation, as well as establishing a task force that could weigh the pros and cons of community input.
Additionally, he suggests the city should put money aside to maintain public schools’ fields, and the rental fees should go to the schools. There is often no clarity as to where fees are going in the current system. “When you cut a check to the Department of General Services, you don’t know where it goes and it doesn’t necessarily benefit that local school.”