The level of rancor in the Cardiff community over the rebuild of Cardiff Elementary School has gone off the rails.
How did insults and harassment become acceptable forms of discourse?
A discussion over two noble objectives, to save a park and rebuild a school, has turned divisive and personal, pitting pro-park advocates against pro-school advocates — as if the two positions are mutually exclusive.
Eleanor Musick, director of the Save the Park and Build the School 501(c)3 organization, said the Cardiff School District inflamed the situation early in the struggle, with a letter to the community posted on the school district’s website on May 15, 2019, addressed to Musick and two others but which was never sent to them.
The open letter asked Save the Park to drop its initial lawsuit that protested the encroachment of school construction on adjacent public parkland. It asked them, in part, to “take an action that puts students ahead of other interests by withdrawing these meritless legal pursuits.”
Musick was alerted to the letter when a reporter called and asked for comment — after which she read it on the district’s website and said, “I was absolutely appalled.”
She called it “the first effort at public shaming.”
Disparaging references to Save the Park advocates by the school district — such as calling them “a small group of adjacent neighbors who continue to oppose the Cardiff School rebuild” — belittle the group and give the public the false impression that Save the Park is against the school rebuild.
Musick and fellow supporter Sharon Janis have said repeatedly that they have no issue with the school rebuild itself and simply want the parkland preserved.
The charges that they only want their views protected are also untrue, even though this has been repeated dozens of times by many parents and even school district officials.
Before construction began, there were 30-plus trees on the park that obstructed their ocean views. The trees were cut down, and now the neighbors have what they call a panoramic ocean view. But they preferred the trees and want the park restored.
“They have completely demolished the park,” Musick said. “They tore up the turf field, they have moved the playground apparatus, they tore out a walking/jogging track, and they put in a building.”
She said work has been temporarily halted on the district’s plan to erect a school auditorium on the park, but construction on the school itself continues.
“We had no problem with the school portion,” she said. “It was the park portion we were trying to protect. We just wanted to save the park.”
The park’s jogging track is critical because she said it was used by disabled people with walkers and was heavily used by the community.
“It’s a very safe place for people to walk,” Musick said. “They were not to touch that track, the jogging track. It’s important to me.”
Besides an end to personal attacks, she said they want the park restored to what it was before, although “certainly some changes could be made.”
Musick and others say the school district isn’t helping to diffuse the tension.
Last December, Cardiff School Principal Julie Parker blasted Save the Park supporters at a neighborhood march.
“It’s selfish, self-centered,” she said. “It is an outrage that they are actually holding these kids hostage as we try and go through this process.”
“To put the needs of their view corridor above the needs of students is deplorable,” she added.
What’s deplorable is for a principal to repeat the falsehood that Save the Park people are only concerned about their ocean views and calling them selfish and self-centered.
I asked Cardiff School District Superintendent Jill Vinson about Parker’s “deplorable” comment, but she refused to answer, citing active litigation restraints — even though any comment on this negative characterization would have no bearing on the lawsuit.
Vinson did say that she knows the issue “has become quite contentious” but is not aware of the harassment and other behaviors the Save the Park backers have described.
“Regardless, the district does not support or condone it,” she said in an email. “If it is taking place, it is certainly not reflective of our values.”
In that email, Vinson said the work being done “on the school’s playfields will actually enhance the operation and use of the site, therefore increasing the usability for the community when the fields aren’t in use by the school’s children.”
Then she wrote this: “The lawsuits levied by the school’s opponents have cost the district significant delays and mounting costs, which has a direct impact on the community’s children.”
Describing Save the Park backers as “the school’s opponents” is another example of mischaracterizing this group, which has made clear multiple times of its support for the school rebuild — just not on parkland.
Who’s really responsible for “delays and mounting costs” is also not so clear-cut.
Eggs and dog feces
To say that many parents are angry would be an understatement.
“We’ve had people drive by our home just laying on the horn and yelling obscenities and flipping anybody off if they saw them in the front yard,” Musick said.
Signs in the neighborhood have read, “Eleanor hates kids” and “Eleanor & Trump: kid-hating bullies.”
She has been called “a self-righteous busybody” and “that horrible woman” in the presence of small children.
“This is the level of anger of these people and they’re not hesitant at all to yell at me in front of their children,” Musick said.
Musick said she and some of her supporters have had eggs thrown at their houses and vehicles, and she has had bags of dog feces left at her doorstep and in her mailbox.
On a Facebook site, about this harassment, someone wrote, “What do you expect when you deny a neighborhood their right to a free and public education in the area they reside?”
Someone sensibly responded that no one is denying anyone a free and public education. But yet the contempt continued unabated.
A “wanted” poster in the neighborhood displayed photos and names of five individuals who support Save the Park, with the header: “These crooks stole $500,000 from you!”
Another lawn sign on many properties named four of these individuals, reading that they “are stealing from YOU and robbing Cardiff kids! Don’t let them get away with this! Drop the lawsuit! Support the children!”
In a settlement agreement, the district paid $500,000 to Save the Park’s attorneys after the courts determined that Save the Park had a valid complaint.
So perhaps it could reasonably be argued that it was the school district, not the park backers, that wasted taxpayer money by initiating construction on adjacent parkland.
On NextDoor, a legitimate question was asked: “Why does the school board get a pass on this? Why isn’t the community holding them accountable for an inept design and approval process that has exposed the process to these lawsuits?”
Here’s the ugly response: “Everything was approved, passed and revised multiple times to throw a bone to the human garbage but Eleanor and her team of leeches dig around to find any and all loopholes or fine print to try and protect their views.”
Ignoring for a moment the vile nastiness of calling those who want to save the park human garbage and leeches, these “leeches” could care less about their views. This is a red herring.
To draw attention to the removal of more than 30 trees on the park in preparation for the school construction, a sign on a nearby house that channeled Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” read, “I weep for the trees.”
This was mocked by signs carried by parents and small children in the march last December that read, “I weep for the kids.”
Save the Park backers say the march, which was covered by most local media, was a PR stunt intended to shame them into dropping the lawsuit.
Other signs deriding the Park people read, “Oh the places you could move” — a twist on Dr. Seuss’ popular book “Oh the Places You’ll Go.”
An op-ed in the North Coast Current back in January, signed by a group calling itself Cardiff Students First Alliance, labeled Save the Park backers as a “vigilante group,” writing that the project “just so happens to sit smack dab in between their homes and their ocean view” — another baseless attempt to discredit the real purpose of Save the Park.
“The personal attacks have been way out of line,” Musick said. “These parents are rabid with anger.”
“I have done a lot for that school,” she said. “I have built stuff, I have helped the garden program, I have donated thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and this is the way that they respond.”
People who signed the petition in support of saving the park have also been targeted.
Musick said she has silent allies, many of whom are fearful of going public.
“There are people who are afraid to post comments on NextDoor for fear of being piled on and attacked,” Musick said.
She said the most recent press release from the school district — which quotes school board President Siena Randall saying that the lawsuit is “not about saving a park” and that the park backers “oppose the rebuild project” — is not factual and is intended to incite anger.
“This is not civility,” Musick said. “I believe in the rule of law. It’s very frustrating because we tried to be very matter-of-fact and civil and please just obey the rules. And the answer we get is, let’s pour some gasoline on the fire.”
She said she won’t give up and let the bullies win.
“What they’re doing is inflaming emotions and trying to bully us into submission,” she said, about the school district. “They don’t have the facts or the law on their side, so all they can do is pound on the table.”
The most despicable action against the group’s cause was a direct-mail hit piece targeting another of its members that included a ransom-style, cut-and-paste note that read, “Were you aware that your neighbor is a sexual predator?”
The direct-mail piece was sent anonymously, and that’s a good thing for the sender because it’s clearly libelous.
“A purely personal attack is just sickening,” Musick said.
The letter refers to an unproven charge of sexual harassment from more than 30 years ago. The accusers were never named and never identified themselves in reports published at the time, yet this reprehensible hit piece was dredged up by those who sought to discredit the Save the Park movement with a personal, decades-old and irrelevant smear campaign against one of the group’s backers.
There are people in the Cardiff community who are on the sidelines, not yet swayed by one side or the other. Malicious, ad hominem attacks can serve to alienate bystanders and do nothing to enhance the position of those against Save the Park.
Bullying tactics worthy of playground antics not only set a terrible example of poor adult behavior but also may do more damage to the school’s tenuous position.
People who do this lose more allies than they gain, and the school district would be wise to distance itself from people who level spurious accusations and from conduct that’s abusive and personal.
Perhaps the school district might consider the old saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Marsha Sutton is a local education journalist and opinion columnist and can be reached at suttonmarsha[at]gmail.com.
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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