Education Matters: Continued controversy plagues Cardiff community

Marsha Sutton

When Measure GG passed in 2016, the Cardiff School District promised voters that the $22 million bond would be used for the usual fixes, a list that uses common language seen on most school district general obligation bond measures: replace leaky roofs, renovate deteriorating electrical and heating/AC systems, fix poor plumbing and sewer systems, make more energy efficient, etc.

Education Matters by Marsha SuttonYou get the idea — the language is so similar from one district to the next as to be almost boilerplate.

But for Cardiff, “replacing outdated roofs” wasn’t quite precise.

I suppose one might argue that a complete tear-down of a classroom is technically replacing a roof, but it seems a tad misleading — particularly when one of the bullets in the bond language for Measure GG further down the list states “replace outdated classrooms.”

And that is exactly what is happening — the demolition and rebuilding of facilities at Cardiff School.

Why not simply state that the intent of this GG money was to tear down and rebuild so much of the school, without going to the trouble of listing all those particular items that go into constructing a campus?

All across the state, school districts place before voters vague bond language with facility defects that are exaggerated or sometimes even invented. Once approved, the money is often used in unanticipated ways, and residents feel duped.

As an aside, a 2004 San Diego Union-Tribune story references an $11.1 million bond approved by Cardiff voters in 2000 that helped pay for renovation of Cardiff School, 40 years old at the time, and Cardiff’s other elementary school, Ada Harris.

From the story: “Both schools have a large multipurpose room, library, science lab, playgrounds, fields, art and music rooms and other specialty classrooms.”

Residents are still paying for that bond, and will for many years to come.

Now residents will be additionally burdened by Measure GG, with its language that suggests nothing has been done for 50 to 60 years to renovate classrooms, when renovations did indeed occur from the previous bond.

Whether the language in Measure GG was complete and truthful is debatable. But it’s that perceived deception in the district’s intentions that’s wreaking havoc in the community.

Building on park land

The item on Measure GG’s list of projects that’s causing most of the controversy is this: “Construct a new multi-purpose room and warming kitchen to replace the current 55-year-old building.”

But the bond language did not specify that this multi-purpose room would not be erected in the same place as that current building. Rather, after the bond passed, the district revealed plans to construct this multi-purpose room (auditorium, really) on adjacent public park land.

That is the heart of the community’s disagreement, and this is why voters have a right to feel betrayed.

Had the district been upfront about its intent to build on park space, which is dedicated to the community when not in use by the school’s students, the bond may very well not have passed.

The George Berkich Park abuts the school and, according to people on both sides of this issue, was widely used after school hours by community members who enjoyed the jogging trail, the dog park and the open space for sports and family activities.

When the park closed and many residents began to see construction on park land, they objected and garnered several hundred names on a petition to save the park. That effort began in 2017.

Thus was formed Save the Park & Build the School, an unincorporated 501(c)3 nonprofit association registered with the state of California.

For background, the school district owns the park land but has a joint use agreement with the city of Encinitas, signed in 1991.

A request for grant money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was requested and granted in 1993 for park renovation. Improvements were made using the grant money, but with this grant came restrictions for future development on the park.

When Eleanor Musick, director of the Save the Park group and nearby resident of the school, saw what the school district was preparing to do to a portion of the park’s land, she notified Cardiff School District Superintendent Jill Vinson to alert her to the restrictions.

“I was the one who informed them about it,” said Musick, who considers the park to be a valuable asset for the community. “They had forgotten.”
Part of the terms of the grant agreement is a guarantee that the park will remain available for public outdoor use in perpetuity, she explained.
“The school district signed this agreement which basically is a deed restriction,” Musick said. “Although they hold title to the land, they are restricted on what they can do with it. And they must get permission from the National Park Service to make any changes.”

This restriction, she said, includes anything that would impact outdoor recreational use — unless the National Park Service agreed to a change.

Safety concerns

A fact sheet on the district’s website states that the district responded to these concerns with a redesign of the project. But relocating the multipurpose building and reducing the parking on park land were two sticking points.

The district cited student safety concerns for the reason why these requests could not be accommodated.

A lawsuit was filed to stop the encroachment on the park, and a judge ruled in favor of Save the Park, stating that the district “breached the accountability requirements set forth in Measure GG by constructing improvements not authorized by Measure GG.”

To settle the case, the district agreed in March to pay $500,000, all of which went to Save the Park’s attorneys. Musick said Procopio was the firm used to represent the group.

According to the district’s fact page, “The grant requirements called for a boundary around the playfields to remain as-is in perpetuity.” Because the new school design encroached on “a small part” of the fields, the district pursued a boundary adjustment.

The district’s May 14 minutes say the National Park Service approved the boundary change on April 24, after which construction again resumed on the park.

But this decision by the Park Service was challenged in a second lawsuit filed by Save the Park.

A few weeks ago, Save the Park was granted a preliminary injunction in federal court to stop construction of the auditorium and other park “improvements.”

This injunction, according to a news release from the school district, is in force while the Park Service reconsiders its prior approval of a boundary adjustment. But work on the school itself, apart from the park, can continue.

Even as this saga moves forward, it’s useful to remember the court’s earlier statement, that the district breached the accountability requirements of Measure GG by engaging in construction on the park.

When asked whether the district had plans all along to build the auditorium on park land, Vinson said she was unable to comment “because we are in active litigation.”

The Cardiff Way

Although Save the Park backers say they have been harassed and personally insulted, Cardiff school board President Siena Randall said most people have behaved in accordance with The Cardiff Way.

“From what I have witnessed, I would say most do,” she said. “Some haven’t and that applies to people on both sides of the issue.”

The Cardiff Way is printed on banners at the district and its schools and lists four ideals for conduct: act responsibly, be honest, care for others and show respect.

About Save the Park, Randall said, “Their actions in asking for another stoppage of construction directly contradicts the saving of a park because … by stopping construction there’s no recreational uses on the site right now. So in my mind that’s a contradiction of what they’re saying they’re trying to do.”

“The entire situation of this group suing the district, settling, accepting money and now suing NPS is an example of dishonesty and poor behavior. It’s clear to anyone driving through Cardiff that most people see this for what it is,” she said, referring to the many neighborhood lawn signs critical of Save the Park.

About the insults Save the Park supporters have experienced, Randall said, “The school district doesn’t have any way of controlling whether people support or don’t support something.

“From what I’ve seen the school district put out, it’s been factual information and community members have been able to make up their own minds about how they feel about the project and about people opposing the project.”

The pause in construction is not just impacting the school children, she said, but it affects all recreational activities for the community.

She said the boundary adjustment made by the Park Service actually provides more square footage of recreational space for the community after school hours than before.

“What the Save the Park people don’t like about that is that it includes parking space and they don’t see that as recreational space,” Randall said. “However, National Parks does because it supports the recreational uses by offering additional parking spaces and opens up the use to people outside the community who can’t walk and who need to be able to park their car.”

Randall said the district as a whole “feels strongly about living by The Cardiff Way. I think that’s a message we have consistently communicated even in our board meetings where we’ve had people come and make public comments.”

“I do understand that people get angry and frustrated and it is very difficult to deal with these things, especially when it comes to your children,” she said.

But she’d like to see everyone act in a civil manner “because that’s what we should do as Americans and as humans and have mutual respect for people. And what their views are and whether they agree or disagree, I think there’s always a civil way to communicate those things.”

On a positive note, Randall said, “The thing that’s most frustrating to me throughout this whole process is that I feel like we haven’t been able to really talk about the positive message and the really amazing things this rebuild is going to offer to this community.
“The moment this campus is able to open and the project is completed, people are going to be really happy with the results.”

Destruction of community spirit

Randall is right when she said that frustration intensifies when children and schools are involved. Tempers can flare and positions can become polarized.

Even under difficult conditions, we try to teach our children to behave in ways that adhere to worthy Cardiff Way objectives. Adults should do the same, and start by setting a good example of proper behavior when disagreements arise.

Save the Park backers just want the park preserved and restored. They are not school opponents and aren’t acting out of self-interest for their ocean views.

What they are is scapegoats.

Should the school district not accept some responsibility for this situation? The district did not disclose on the Measure GG bond language that the multipurpose room would be constructed on park land, did not perform due diligence to uncover any grant restrictions, and continued to barrel ahead in a rather reckless manner with the park construction while waiting for National Park Service boundary change approval.

The school district and its supporters seem to be using Save the Park as a distraction to focus attention away from the district’s own poor planning and lack of due diligence.

The school can be rebuilt and the park can be saved — and along the way blame can be put aside in favor of civility and lawful resolution of differences, without unnecessary adversarial posturing.

All that’s missing is the will to make it happen.

Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha[at]

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.

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