Roslindale school gets a big gift from an unlikely source: the United Arab Emirates
A rundown play area outside the Haley Pilot School in Roslindale will be transformed into a sleek soccer field in the coming months, thanks to a donation from an unusual source: a small oil-producing country in the Middle East with a checkered record on human rights.
The gift from the United Arab Emirates, valued at $275,000 and formally accepted by the School Committee Wednesday night, has drawn outrage from peace activists who criticize school officials for taking a donation from a country that doesn’t share their values.
Amnesty International has faulted the UAE for such human rights violations as suppressing free speech, discriminating against women, and banning homosexuality — practices that go against the school system’s own classroom teachings. The country also has been heavily involved in a brutal civil war in Yemen, which the United Nations has declared the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate,” said Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, an advocacy group. “We should in no way be helping the United Arab Emirates burnish their reputation. They are trying to buy credibility, acceptance, and prestige.”
The school system, he added, in ignoring its own values is sending a dangerous message to students: “Money is king.”
In a city where parents at lower-grade schools often solicit donations for new playgrounds and athletic fields, the new soccer field at the Haley isn’t the result of any sophisticated fund-raising campaign hatched by parents.
Instead, the gift came about through a connection between the UAE Embassy and Boston Children’s Hospital, which for 20 years has treated severely ill children from the wealthy country. Children’s, in turn, reached out to the school system several months ago to gauge its interest.
From there school officials, working with Children’s, vetted various sites, placing a premium on one centrally located location that would serve underprivileged children — stipulations by the UAE — and on schools that had existing soccer programs. The Haley, which has a partnership with the soccer program America Scores and a lackluster playing field, eventually rose to the top.
The donation is part of a broader effort by the UAE, which has brought soccer fields over the past decade to underprivileged children in 10 other US cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, and Dallas. The soccer fields are constructed using artificial turf.
The UAE Embassy said it is excited to team up with Children’s Hospital and the Boston Public Schools on a new soccer field for the Haley.
“The UAE and Boston Children’s have a deep and longstanding partnership that spans over two decades, and we are looking forward to engaging this community to give kids access to an environmentally friendly, year-round playing space along with quality coaching and programming,” the embassy said in a statement.
At Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting, the UAE’s humanitarian record never came up as a concern, although two members, Hardin Coleman and Michael O’Neill, questioned the process that led to the selection of the Haley.
The two preferred an open process for schools to vie for the soccer field. Instead, the school department internally created a list of schools based on the criteria they developed. John Hanlon, the school system’s chief operating officer, said at the meeting the department was concerned that broadcasting the opportunity widely could have sparked politicking by individual schools.
O’Neill disputed that.
“The more transparent we can be, the more people can see we don’t play favorites,” he said.
Michael Loconto, the School Committee chairman, lauded the hospital’s and the school department’s effort, calling it an “admirable task.”
“I’m sure it’s hard to find a spot in a city to fit a soccer field,” he said before the School Committee unanimously approved the donation.
Both the school department and Children’s Hospital refrained from addressing the UAE’s human rights records in statements issued Thursday in response to Globe questions. Instead, both organizations emphasized their mutual goals of providing students more opportunities for physical activity. Children’s Hospital added, “We treat sick children from all over the world, irrespective of the country they come from.”
It remains unclear the extent to which the Haley community had knowledge of the UAE’s gift, a potentially awkward fit for a school where its 400 students sign a contract promising to be peacemakers and every morning recite a peace pledge, vowing not to harm one another physically or with harsh words and to conduct themselves with positive attitudes and with respect for diversity.
Michael Maguire, whose daughter will be a sixth grader at the Haley this fall, said a new field would be greatly welcomed, noting “the soccer area is much neglected.”
“When it rains, it’s all mud,” said Maguire, who also teaches at Boston Latin Academy.
But he added that he wished the Haley was not getting the field through a private donation — a practice that has led to uneven resources among the district’s 125 schools over the years and can create conflicts of interest.
“The burden should be on the city and taxpayers to pay for it,” he said. “Public education is not charity.”