ENCINITAS — After a three-month halt due to legal action, construction on the Cardiff Elementary School campus rebuild resumed March 2.
Last week it was announced that a settlement had been reached by the Cardiff School District and Save the Park and Build the School, the group who sued the district over the project. As part of the settlement the district must pay the group $500,000 for legal fees.
“We are glad to be starting construction so that we can build the classrooms and the campus that we have promised the voters,” Superintendent Jill Vinson said March 2. “This whole process has been very unfortunate, but our goal has always been to do what’s best for kids. We’re grateful to finally resume construction on the school they deserve and that will serve the Cardiff community for decades to come.”
The lawsuit, filed last March, alleged a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and taxpayer waste of bond funds, and centered around the fact that the district planned to build on a small portion of its own playfields, which it is required to keep as a public park in off hours. That stems from a 1993 funding agreement between the city, district, Department of State Parks and National Parks Service that requires the land to remain a park in perpetuity in exchange for the grant funding unless the state and federal agencies sign off on a change.
In November a Superior Court judge sided with Save the Park and ruled that construction be halted. That prompted a protest in December during which families, students and neighbors gathered at the construction site in support of restarting the school build.
“Our feelings are mixed,” Eleanor Musick, of the Save the Park group, said of their feelings on the settlement. “While we’re pleased the district is now going to comply the law, we remain profoundly disappointed the district forced this all the way to the courts instead of taking the conservative approach we urged them to take more than two years ago, and simply comply with the law from the outset. It could have saved all of us considerable time and resources, as well as avoiding the emotional toll this has taken on so many people.”
Musick said Save The Park presented a settlement proposal to the district on Jan. 21, the morning of trial on the taxpayer waste claim. She said after several hours of discussion that morning, and multiple iterations of a written agreement to fine tune the details over the following weeks, the agreement was signed on Feb. 26.
“While (Save The Park) was confident we would prevail at trial, stopping the school construction completely was never our goal; it was merely for the school to honor its agreement to keep the park as open space in perpetuity,” Musick said.
She added that the $500,000 payment the district agreed to make as part of the settlement represents only a fraction of the total legal expenses incurred by Save The Park in the lawsuit.
“We want the community to know that (Save The Park) received nothing at all for the immense time and expense we put in to preserve a precious community open space for everyone — not least of the children in Cardiff,” Musick said. “It’s important everyone realize we did not receive a dime of financial benefit ourselves.”
The settlement resolves all currently pending litigation and appeals, which means the district could immediately resume construction of all Phase 1 classroom buildings and related support spaces. Siena Randall, president of the Cardiff School District board, said the first thing being built will be the kindergarten complex with their own designated play area.
The district will not begin construction on Phase 2, which includes the multipurpose room, expanded pickup/drop-off and parking lot, and outdoor assembly area, which are located within the current grant boundary, until receiving approval from the National Park Service.
The district says it already has the approval of the Department of State Parks.
Musick said she thinks there’s a good chance the district won’t get permission to alter the boundaries.
“In fact, they were warned by the (National Park Service) in March 2019, three months before they demolished the classrooms, that they were unlikely to obtain the approval,” she said. “So we think it would be in everyone’s best interest to revise the design and avoid encroaching into the park.”
According to a district news release, the construction delay cost the Cardiff School District approximately $25,000 per week to maintain the construction site as students attend school adjacent to the active construction areas.
The delay also means the facilities won’t be ready for the start of the 2020-21 school year, as originally intended. The district said a new timeline is currently being sorted out.
The district anticipates that all second-graders will begin the 2020-21 school year at Ada Harris School, the district’s upper grade campus, and will transition to their new classrooms at Cardiff School in late fall. Next year’s kindergarten and first-grade students will start the school year on the current Cardiff School campus as it presently exists. The district anticipates that they also will transition to the newly built classrooms in late fall.
Funding for the rebuild comes from Measure GG, a $22 million bond measure approved by nearly 66% of Cardiff voters in 2016.
“It’s a very exciting time for our district,” Vinson said. “This campus has been built in phases from 1950 through the ‘60s and it’s never had a comprehensive site plan, so we’re delivering something to the community that this campus has never had.”