Cardiff School families march to restart rebuild

Cardiff School families marched in protest after a lawsuit halted school construction.
(Karen Billing)

When construction of the new Cardiff School was forced to a halt on Dec. 2, it left students, staff and parents with a future school site with no movement and mostly mud.

The work stoppage was the result of a lawsuit filed against Cardiff School District by opposition group Save the Park and Build the School. Up until then, the community at large had been fairly quiet about the rebuild opposition because as old school buildings came down in June and construction got underway, they felt like no action was needed. But things changed when the construction stopped: On Dec. 11, Cardiff School parents and students marched up and down the sidewalk in protest, toting a collection of handmade signs with messages like “Build the school, drop the lawsuit,” “Kids over views” and “The Grinch stole my school.”

The crowd chanted in unison while they marched: “Build the school, keep our kids safe” and “We need classrooms, not a mud pit.”

“The parents are outraged, as well they should be,” said Principal Julie Parker, who has led the school for 24 years.

The San Diego Superior Court ordered the stop to construction after finding in favor of the Save the Park group’s claim that the district had not followed state environmental law. The court ruled that all construction must be put on hold until further order of the court, court of appeal or completion of a full and adequate environmental impact report.

“It’s unbelievable that a small group of neighbors can put their needs and desires first ahead of the needs of kids from a safety and educational standpoint,” said Annessa Baird, parent of a first-grader at Cardiff.

The rebuild of the 65-year-old campus is funded by $22 million in bond funds secured by 2016’s Measure GG. On the sidewalk, parents expressed disappointment and frustration that community members are footing the bill for stalled construction and legal fees.

“Residents are asking the people holding the school hostage to drop the lawsuit and allow the community to build its public school,” said Lora Bodmer, parent of a Cardiff kindergartner. “We want our kids to have a new school. We’re all paying for it and they deserve to have a safe place to learn and grow.”

Cardiff School families hold protest signs.
(Karen Billing)

The construction was designed to be a less than two-year project, with second and third graders moved to Ada Harris School while kindergartners and first graders are housed in temporary classrooms at Cardiff.

During the construction, students are doing without a cafeteria, drop-off area, hardscape play areas, dry places for backpacks during the recent rains and any community space. Parker said that this was meant to be a short-term solution.

“Every day that construction is delayed is another day that students are housed in these conditions,” Parker said.

“It’s an untenable situation for the long-term,” she continued, echoing some parents’ concerns that litigation could leave school construction in limbo indefinitely. “The district is pursuing all legal options to get construction back on track.”

The next court date is slated for Dec. 18.

The march was fully organized by parents—signs and banners stretched from the school on Montgomery Avenue all the way up to Interstate-5 reading “Build our school” with children’s handprints stamped in multi-colored paint.

Save the Park and Build the School signs from the opposition group have peppered the neighborhood over the last year. A Lorax (a Dr. Seuss character) posted on one home across the street from the school reads “I weep for the trees”, referencing the removal of trees as part of the rebuild. Several rally signs played off the Dr. Seuss theme—in addition to a few Grinch signs, one read “Weep for the kids” and another, “Oh the places you could move”.

Baird said that nearly 66 percent of Cardiff voters supported Measure GG and the district has made many concessions to accommodate the neighbors.

After the bond passed, the district held workshops with the community before any design work began. A conceptual plan was released in August 2017 and was revised after the district heard feedback to maximize the field and concerns about the buildings blocking views to the ocean. While they moved the kindergarten and extended day program to the other side of campus, the multi-purpose room location stayed near the field and remained a point of contention.

The district explored many different ways for the campus to be organized but the other options created safety concerns and would only impact other neighbors’ views.

At the march, parents said they were proud of the design that they believe takes into account neighborhood concerns, is not overdeveloped and maintains enough field space for sports and recreation. One mom said it’s not a “behemoth” of a school, it’s still a small neighborhood school for kindergarten through third-grade students.

“This is about the kids and doing what’s best for the kids, providing them with the security and educational facilities that the community voted for,” Baird said. “Right now the kids are stuck.”

The opponents contend that Measure GG asked for funding for a “modernization” of Cardiff School and not a rebuild. As a result they believe the district designed buildings that the voters did not approve and facilities that encroach into George Berkich Park in violation of a federal agreement from a 1993 Land and Water Conservation Fund Grant. The agreement between the district and the National Park Service requires the district to maintain the land for recreational, public use unless a boundary adjustment is made.

On Nov. 25, the district obtained approval for a boundary adjustment from the California Department of Parks and Recreation Office of Grants and Local Services (OGALS) and, on Nov. 27, it received conditional approval from the National Park Service.

According to a statement from Save the Park and Build the School, they have always advocated for the build-out of Cardiff School, as long as it is done responsibly and in compliance with the law.

Young activists at the march.
(Karen Billing)

“Save the Park understands that parents are upset that their children are going to school at a construction site, and is sensitive to this fact,” read a statement from Save the Park Build the School. “But the district’s construction plans have all along called for the kindergarten and first-grade students to attend classes in an active construction site for two school years.

“Save the Park continues to implore the district to do the right thing – which is to conform its school facilities to the law allowing the district to complete the project and the district’s children to enjoy a modernized school consistent with what the voters approved. Unfortunately, the district has thus far refused to modify its plans to meet the law. Instead it deflects accountability for its actions by blaming members of Save the Park and the court itself. As citizens, we should expect better from our public agencies.”