The Cardiff community is reeling from legal whiplash after a U.S. district court ruled the National Parks Service acted in violation of its own rules in approving the Cardiff School rebuild, forcing the district to delay its planned return to in-person learning.
The school is now scheduled to reopen on Oct. 5, instead of Sept. 14, as it equips the campus with “temporary fixes” to an ADA-accessible walkway as well as the existing drop-off/pick-up area, Principal Julie Parker said.
The boundary adjustment, which would have brought the district in compliance with the land-use rules established through a National Parks Service agreement it entered in the 1990s, was approved in April despite assertions from local advocates that it was an illegal decision.
“This is exactly what we said over two-and-a-half years ago, that the (Land and Water Conservation Fund) rules are pretty clear as far as what’s allowed and what isn’t, and that the park is protected,” said Eleanor Musick, director of Save the Park and Build the School.
A September memo from the National Parks Service partly points the finger at the Cardiff School District and the state Office of Grants and Local Services, which has overseen the project, for the improper approval of the boundary adjustment. This is because, according to the memo, the application included misleading information about what parts of the project were subject to compliance.
The entities submitted an old map of George Berkich Park that did not adequately delineate what parts of the land were subject to public management rules, the memo stated. This led the National Parks Service to wrongly approve the boundary adjustment, ruling that the hard court area was eligible for construction when it was not.
“Both (Cardiff School District) and OGALS asserted that there was no evidence that the hard court area had been previously dedicated for public park uses,” the memo stated.
While the National Parks Service declined to comment further on the ongoing litigation, the district assures it never provided misleading information as part of the approval process. The district also noted a section of the memo that states when the National Parks Service requested that the boundary include space within the hard court area, that request was accommodated.
“Unfortunately, the reconsideration memo appears to simply contradict the original approval by using the same facts to reach a different conclusion,” a district statement said.
Although this month’s ruling has overturned approval of the boundary adjustment, it cannot undo the swath of construction that the district decided to proceed with despite the project being the subject of legal debate.
At this point, the ball is in the National Parks Service’s court as officials work to determine whether the project can achieve compliance in any way, Musick said.
District officials have declined to comment on what the next steps will be following the decision but have expressed thorough frustration with the agencies involved.
“The District followed the explicit guidance of both NPS and DPR through a lengthy process that resulted in an unconditional approval from both agencies,” Superintendent Jill Vinson said in a news release. “No facts regarding the project have changed since the original approval in April. This is a complete about-face from what these agencies have communicated to us for the last two and half years as we have worked to regain compliance with the LWCF grant requirements.”
In the court’s decision — issued on Sept. 11 — U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said the public interest in upholding federal law outweighed its interest in returning to in-person learning in time for the district’s initial start date.
District officials simply disagree, seeing the decision as playing into the interests of “a small group of neighbors.”
“It is unfortunate that the courts have agreed that personal interests of this small group outweighs the greater public interest of having a school open and accessible for students,” Principal Parker said.
Millions of dollars and several years later, Musick said it’s about time the district make plans to move the auditorium and change the parking lot design in a way that doesn’t require approval from the National Parks Service. Considering construction is already well underway, that would require moving the building entirely.
“It’s time for parents to start questioning the school board and ask, ‘Why did you choose this route when you could have avoided it entirely?’ And they would have had millions of dollars more,” Musick said.
School on the Cardiff campus will continue on Oct. 5 amid the ongoing construction and legal disputes.
The park, named after former Cardiff Elementary School Principal George Berkich, has been closed during new construction at Cardiff Elementary under Measure GG, a bond program approved by voters in 2016. The legal battle surrounds whether the park can undergo any changes.
Bella Ross is a local freelance writer.
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