First phase of Cardiff School rebuild wrapping up

A rendering of the planned multipurpose building and plaza area of the new Cardiff School.
(Studio E Architects)

When teachers and students return from the summer recess to Cardiff and Ada Harris campuses in southern Encinitas on Tuesday, Aug. 27, it will not be business as usual.

Part of Cardiff School, which is bounded by Montgomery Avenue, Mozart and San Elijo avenues, has been leveled in the first phase of a modernization and reconstruction project.

Only kindergartners and first-graders will be taught in the buildings that remain on the campus, while second-graders who would normally attend Cardiff will instead go to Ada Harris, a third-grade through sixth-grade school a few miles away.

The temporary arrangement is intended to accommodate the construction of new buildings and the reconfiguration of the 7.4-acre site in the Cardiff-by-the-Sea section of Encinitas. The work is being financed by a bond issuance titled Measure GG.

Yet, just whether the building project will proceed as planned remains up in the air because of a lawsuit challenging the Cardiff School District’s design for the project, which includes nine new buildings, renovations to an existing classroom wing and specialty classroom building, a redesigned drop-off and pick-up area, and parking lot, among other features.

The legal action filed by the nonprofit group Save the Park and Build the School primarily aims to block the partial loss of recreational space on the Cardiff School property that is known as George Berkich Park.

The district’s construction schedule calls for contractors to start erecting the new buildings in November, with the last building being completed by spring 2021, said the district’s bond program manager Randy Peterson.

“The 60- to 70-year-old classroom buildings have been demolished, and they’re making way for new classroom buildings to be constructed,” Peterson said. “That’s consistent with Measure GG, with the whole premise being to provide better facilities for 21st century learning, a safer environment for the children, staff and teachers, and also to accommodate a variety of other items that came up through a pretty comprehensive community planning process.”

A district rendering shows the configuration of the new school.
(Studio E Architects)

Voters passed the $22 million bond issue in 2016 to finance the replacement of aging decades-old buildings on the Cardiff campus, modernizing the property and making improvements at Ada Harris.

Peterson said 66 percent of the electorate cast votes in favor of the measure, which needed a 55 percent approval rate for passage.

“The community has been very supportive of the project,” Peterson said.

Yet, not all of the community supports all of the project, as exemplified by the lawsuit and opponents who voiced concerns to district and city officials during the planning and environmental review process.

The debate primarily revolves around the project’s encroachment into the campus’ 4-acre recreational area named after a former Cardiff principal — George Berkich.

A Superior Court judge on Aug. 9 signed a temporary restraining order preventing the district from building in the Berkich Park section until the case is decided. A hearing is scheduled in October.

“We are not trying to stop the construction of the school,” said Eleanor Musick, director of the plaintiffs’ group. “I actually voted for the bond measure because I felt the school needed to be modernized. The intention of the lawsuit is to save the park and to prevent it from being built upon.”

Normally, Encinitas City Hall would have little say over the project, since the school district owns the property and local governments lack jurisdiction over state-sanctioned public school districts.

Opponents, however, point to past agreements involving the district with the city, county and federal agencies, in which the district received money to develop that section of the campus as recreational space, while agreeing to open it up to public use during non-school hours.

In particular, the district and city jointly received a $160,000 grant in federal land and conservation funding in the 1990s, and the city put in another $300,000 for recreational improvements to the site.

“The park was originally built and became a park for public purposes in 1978, then it was renovated in 1993 and finished in 1995,” Musick said. “The primary basis for our claim is that (district officials) are violating the federal law that established this (1993) grant. You can’t use taxpayer money to violate federal law.”

The district’s plan would result in a multipurpose building, assembly area and some parking extending into the open space. The plan also would redesign the remaining space, including the elimination of an existing ball field, and creation of two soccer fields.

The Save the Park group estimates the turf area and athletic fields would be reduced from about 125,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet. District officials contend the changes would have minimal impact on the play area.

The district is pursuing the possibility of getting federal officials to undo the 1993 agreement and allow the proposed Cardiff rebuild to proceed as planned.

District officials are confident the matter ultimately will be decided in the agency’s favor.

“They are the school’s play fields and they are 100-percent owned by the district,” Peterson said. “It’s against the law for school districts to give up their land for anything else other than educational uses. ... The reality is it’s a district property.”

District officials say some opponents who live east of the school are more concerned about the new buildings blocking their ocean views. The campus itself offers unobstructed ocean views.

Musick, however, said the majority of more than 40 opponents who commented on the district’s draft environmental report did not have view issues. Some views have opened up recently because of the removal of trees from the site during the demolition and grading stage.

According to the district, the plan calls for 53 trees to be added, resulting in a net gain of 30 trees.

Notwithstanding the controversy and legal issues, district Superintendent Jill Vinson and board President Siena Randall said they are looking forward to the day in 2021 when all the new buildings will be open and in use.

For now, the school’s administration building, library, two attached classrooms and eight portable buildings will remain in use for the 200 or so students who will be on campus. Those buildings will eventually be replaced after the new classroom buildings are available for use.

A much-welcomed feature of the new structures is that they will come with air-conditioning and there will be outdoor learning spaces adjacent to classrooms.

“Change is hard. It’s definitely difficult,” said Randall, who attended Cardiff in the early 1980s when she was elementary-aged.

“But this campus has served so many students over the generations of people who have lived here and I’m really excited for the future of the kids who get to enjoy this new campus,” she said. “I think it’s well-designed and I think it’s reasonable for the community. I think it’s a great representation of all the input that was given.”

Said Vinson, a veteran North County educator, “This is a real honor. We are so proud to be able to provide a beautiful new campus for the youngest students in the Cardiff community.

“It’s something that we are excited about and that we are looking forward to being able to share with the whole community as the project comes to completion. We’re committed to doing everything we can as we work through the process to provide a high level program and education for our students and our families.”