Opinion Your Views — 23 January 2014
It’s high time to light up all of our schools’ athletic fields

By Gary Carr, Alexandria
(File Photo)

To the editor:

Every parent in Alexandria should get acquainted with the terms of condition No. 85, which was included in the 2004 special-use permit for the construction of the new T.C. Williams High School. It states: “No permanent stadium lighting shall be installed at the school stadium or any other athletic fields, including the proposed new practice field.”

This prohibition has had a tremendous impact on the health and learning experience of all children attending Alexandria’s only public high school.

The policy, which actually dates back more than 40 years to the construction of the original high school, could be rightfully considered a vestige of the city’s segregated past. Alexandria’s former high school, now George Washington Middle School, had a field with a running track, seating for thousands and lights. It also was for whites only.

Times have changed, but one remnant of those tumultuous years in the early 1970s, recalled in “Remember the Titans,” was a high school constructed in the geographic middle of the city — but also was in the middle of a residential area and in the middle of controversy. This is the root of the dilemma, pitting the needs of the immediate neighbors against the needs of the children and community. The needs of both should be considered and respected.

This issue was referenced by city council during the discussion of the construction of six new tennis courts — with lighting — at the high school. Everyone was in agreement about the need for new courts.

However, this request brought out the long-simmering subtext of lighting — not only of the tennis courts, but also at the athletic fields of every secondary school in the city. Let us not forget the recent effort at Francis Hammond

Middle School to light the new field and track. The school board, planning commission and city council approved the plan, only to be thwarted by a community association that threatened legal action, which would have delayed the desperately needed project.

The city council unanimously approved the tennis courts — with lights. But it took great pains to avoid the elephant in the room: lighting not only at T.C., but also at all athletic fields at our secondary schools.

Mayor Bill Euille, to his credit, began the public hearing pledging to lead a discussion about adding more lighting to the high school’s athletic fields. This discussion should include the fields at Francis Hammond and George Washington middle schools.

The time has come to have an open and frank discussion on the need for lighting at our sports facilities. The needs of the neighbors should be respected, but those of the children cannot be neglected.

The terms of condition No. 85 must be repealed, not only for the tennis courts at T.C., but also for the fields at our secondary schools. This should be done with the full input of all members of the community, and even could be placed on the ballot to ensure the program represents consensus of taxpayers.

Every effort should be made to address the concerns of the communities that surround the school. Problems like traffic violations, trash and vagrant behavior should not be tolerated.

At the same time, school neighbors must be realistic. These schools are not going anywhere. There will be inconveniences that were not present in the past.

Our children are the future of this community. They must be nurtured mentally and physically to be successful. They need these facilities to practice and refine their skills.

Technology has improved such that lighted facilities are much less intrusive than in the past. The activities will cease at 10 p.m., regulated by timers to keep the peace.

Also, there are fencing barriers, security cameras and other technological enhancements, such as landscape screening, berms, soundproof windows, insulated walls and blackout coverings. These methods significantly reduce the infringement of increased usage.

But let’s be realistic: These changes will have a significant impact on the lives of those abutting the schools. Noise, vehicles and lights are the side effects of a vigorous athletic program. This inconvenience is not for some abstract objective, it is for the youth of this community.

How do we pay for these improvements in a time of fiscal austerity? One suggestion would be a cigarette tax that raises funds and discourages an unhealthy activity. Other funding sources could be considered that don’t negatively impact the educational mission of the schools.

The point is that this should be a community-focused effort. It only makes sense to install electrical prerequisites, such as conduits and wiring, during the initial construction. It is also cost-effective to look at the overall needs of our secondary schools and address them comprehensively.

Let me be clear: Every secondary school deserves all-weather athletic fields. These fields deserve lighted running tracks and lighted tennis courts. Don’t just fix the problem for some athletes and leave others at a competitive disadvantage.

This is the correct strategy, one that serves all members of this community. Starting this debate should be a priority for the school board and city council.
And it goes unsaid, of course, that if you build this, in many ways, we will run.

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