Cardiff school legal fight at crossroads in wake of tentative settlement


The Cardiff Elementary School campus is shown under construction Sept. 17. (Photo by Roman S. Koenig)

Bella Ross

Both parties in the lawsuit regarding a Cardiff Elementary School remodel reached a tentative settlement agreement last month, potentially bringing an end to the months-long quarrel over the legality of the project.

“The parties continue to have productive confidential communications with one another while the terms of the settlement are being memorialized in a written agreement,” according to a statement provided by the Cardiff School District. “The parties will have no further comment regarding the settlement until after the written agreement has been finalized and fully executed.”

Construction for the contentious school remodel was brought to a halt after a December ruling in the lawsuit that asserts the project is out of compliance with state law and a waste of taxpayer funds.

The plaintiff — a group called Save the Park and Build the School — argues Cardiff School District failed to notify citizens of crucial changes to the project, which was approved in 2016 as part of Measure GG. The lawsuit also asserts the district is out of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act by wrongfully claiming exemptions from the law and the certification of the project’s Environmental Impact Report, according to the plaintiff’s website.

The decision to halt construction on the project was issued in a Dec. 2 ruling by Vista Superior Court Judge Earl Maas. He said the removal of 37 trees to clear space for construction did not qualify as a “minor alteration,” thus putting the project out of compliance with environmental regulations and mandating further work be halted. Maas also confirmed the group is likely to prevail at trial on its taxpayer waste claim.

The district requested a temporary stay on the decision pending appellate review but was denied on Dec. 20, according to a district fact sheet. The district declined to partake in interviews on the topic while the case remains in court.

The settlement talks could bring an end to the case, but the terms of the Jan. 21 agreement are currently unknown.

Issues with the project stem from a 1993 agreement the district entered to obtain federal-state grant funds to rehabilitate George Berkich Park. Part of that agreement, which is tied to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, requires park space within grant boundaries to be preserved for public use “in perpetuity.”

The district received conditional approval from the National Parks Service for a boundary adjustment on Nov. 27, which would prevent the current construction project from overlapping with the grant boundary, according to a district fact sheet. The remaining consultation process that would make the adjustment official is expected to be completed this year.

“After completion of the project and its significant upgrades to the playfields, the school’s outdoor play areas will continue to remain as outdoor recreation areas in perpetuity when not in use for school purposes,” the fact sheet reads.

Eleanor Musick, director of Save the Park and Build a School, said she notified district Superintendent Jill Vinson of the grant boundary conflict in a February 2018 email. She said if they had heeded her warning, the project could’ve been brought into compliance before construction started.

“They knew (of legal issues) more than a year before then,” Musick said.

Although there are some community members who share Musick’s concerns about the maintenance of the parks pace and honoring grant boundaries, others have advocated for the district to continue with campus renovations.

“I think the district, seeing their actions, they’re trying to stay committed to the bond and to building a modern, safe campus for the youngest community members,” said Annessa Baird, Cardiff resident and mother of two kids who attend the elementary school.

Baird said she and some other community members would’ve liked to see Save the Park and Build a School drop the lawsuit because they see it as a waste of district money.

“The Save the Park group continues to talk about how they want to preserve George Berkich Park, but if you look at the before and after picture, the park’s still there. The park is still there,” Baird said. “The park’s not going anywhere.”

A district fact sheet published before the settlement talks stated that “the district would agree to delay any construction within the existing (Land Water and Conservation Fund) grant boundary until final approval of the new grant boundary by (the National Park Service) in exchange for the plaintiff’s agreement to allow construction of the school outside the existing grant boundary.”

If the plaintiff prevails, the district could be permanently enjoined from continuing the renovations with Measure GG funds and may be required to “disgorge any bond funds that were already expended,” according to the plaintiff’s webpage.

Bella Ross is a local freelance writer

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