A settlement has been officially reached in the community group Save the Park Build the School’s lawsuit against the Cardiff School District.
The lawsuit alleged taxpayer waste of bond funds and a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and centered around the district’s plan to use a portion of its playfields on George Berkich Park to rebuild Cardiff School. The agreement will allow the district to move forward on construction of the classroom and school buildings that do not encroach into or alter the boundaries of the district-owned park.
“While this process has been unfortunate, the district is eager to resume construction and build a beautiful, safe new school that will proudly serve the Cardiff community for decades to come,” said the school district in a statement.
Due to the lawsuit, construction of the new school on Montgomery Avenue was completely halted for three months.
The terms of the settlement agreement include a $500,000 payment from the school district to the plaintiff. According to the district, the amount reflects a percentage of the total anticipated cost of the lawsuit which will also include the cost of the construction delay, repairs to the site due to rain erosion and the district’s legal fees.
The litigation has not altered the district’s original campus design and layout as identified in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The district believes the design incorporates “extensive” community input and involved numerous changes and compromises in an attempt to accommodate neighbor concerns regarding views, traffic and open space while maintaining the district’s priorities of student safety and educational program needs.
While the district disputes the CEQA ruling, it agreed to the settlement offer to avoid further delays, negative impacts to students and project costs.
The Save the Park and Build the School is a neighborhood group with more than 250 members who are committed to preserving George Berkich Park, “an important and well-loved community resource.”
While owned by the district, the park’s boundaries are federally protected under a 1993 Land and Water Conservation Fund agreement. The agreement stipulated that the land must “be maintained in public outdoor recreation in perpetuity” and could not be converted to any other use without approval by the National Park Service (NPS).
The district has been engaged in a conversion process administered by the state and federal agencies responsible for the grant to adjust the boundary. In November 2019, the Office of Grants and Local Services (OGALS), the state agency that oversees the grant, recommended its approval of the proposed boundary adjustment and the district is now awaiting approval from NPS.
The district has always stated that it would not begin construction of the multipurpose room, expanded pickup/drop-off and parking lot which are located within the current grant boundary, until receiving approval from NPS.
According to Save the Park, the district sought permission for the conversion only after it had already self-certified the project’s EIR and approved the project. While the settlement resolves all existing litigation and appeals, Save the Park has retained the right to challenge any part of the NPS approval process going forward.
“We’re pleased the district has finally agreed to honor its commitments and will be able to begin building the school,” said Eleanor Musick, one of the leaders representing the neighbors seeking to preserve the park. “George Berkich Park is cherished open space we believe is worth protecting for the entire community — especially the students at Cardiff Elementary.”
The district now has two years to gain approval from NPS to convert park land for school uses. During that time, both the district and Save the Park will be copied on all communications with NPS regarding the boundaries.
The Cardiff School rebuild was originally scheduled to be completed by spring of 2021, however, with the three -month delay in construction, a new timeline will be established. The district anticipates that all second graders will begin the 2020-21 school year at Ada Harris School and will transition to their new classrooms at Cardiff School in late fall.
Next year’s kindergarten and first grade students will start the school year on the current Cardiff School campus and the district anticipates that they will transition to the newly built classrooms in late fall.
According to the district, the total financial impact of the lawsuit and subsequent delay will be determined once the new construction schedule has been developed and final costs have been established.
After construction was halted in December, the situation became heated in the community between those in favor of the rebuild and Save the Park members. Save the Park members claimed that their cars and homes were egged, dog feces left on their doorsteps and signs were posted attacking Musick by name.
On Dec. 12, the parent group Cardiff Student First Alliance organized a protest march to get construction back on track. About 150 school parents and children marched in front of the school, chanting and hoisting handmade signs with the strong message of: “Build the school, drop the lawsuit.”
“We are ecstatic that classroom construction can finally resume but we are appalled at the $500,000 payoff,” said parent Michelle Ducker, a member of the Cardiff Student First Alliance. “The design of the school still remains the same after all of this, but the district is out more than $500,000 that should have been used for our community‘s school and children’s education.
“On top of that, the plaintiff is still lobbying against NPS to prevent the district from getting approval for the boundary adjustment for phase 2. This is deplorable and needs to stop immediately.”
Save the Park Build the School objected to the parent’s allegation of a “payoff”, stating that the money represents a faction of the legal fees that were incurred.
“Many laws provide for recovery of legal fees when citizens prevail in lawsuits brought against a public entity to require them to follow the law. Both the environmental laws and the taxpayer waste laws that Save the Park asserted against the District include attorneys’ fees provisions,” read an email from Save the Park representative. “Because Save the Park won every one of the court decisions in the case, including the final determination that the project was out of compliance with CEQA, we would have been entitled recovery of at least some of our fees had the case gone through the entire litigation process. The district knew fees would be awarded to Save the Park, but since neither side could be certain of how much, we agreed to a specific amount.”