Cardiff School resolves land grant issues, construction to resume

Cardiff School District staff cut off the plastic wrapping on the Cardiff School multipurpose building.
(Karen Billing)

On the morning of July 11, members of the Cardiff School Board ceremoniously cut away the white plastic wrapped around the building frame of the Cardiff School’s new multipurpose room. The “iceberg” has stood for the past two years as the district was prohibited from continuing construction in the park without approval from the National Park Service, the result of a second lawsuit filed by Save the Park and Build the School over the rebuild’s encroachment into the George Berkich Park playfields.

The plastic cutting marked the July 2 final settlement of outstanding issues related to a 1993 Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grant agreement with the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Office of Grants and Local Services. When Save the Park and Build the School filed its first lawsuit in March 2019, the primary basis was to ensure that the district was in compliance with its commitment under the LWCF agreement to preserve the park for public outdoor recreation use in perpetuity.

While construction had been halted in the park boundary until the issues were resolved, Cardiff students moved into their new campus’ classrooms a year and a half ago.

A group of Cardiff School District board members and staff removed the plastic wrap from the multipurpose room.
(Karen Billing)

“This building represents the last remnant of the current phase of the project,” Superintendent Jill Vinson said. “We are so excited to get this plastic off and get this building finished so that our students can enjoy performances and have music class and gather together.”

The informal plastic cutting at 7:30 a.m. preceded the work of the professional removal crew coming later that morning. After the board made the first cuts, other school staffers jumped in, including the current and former principals. Some community members watched the action from the sidewalk along San Elijo Avenue.

As part of the settlement, the district will pay $570,000 to the state to acquire replacement property for another park. Per LWCF rules, the replacement property is supposed to be at a reasonably equivalent location and usefulness. The rules also specify that the replacement land must be open and accessible to the public within three years from approval.

The school board recently approved an amendment with McCarthy Building Company to move forward and complete the multipurpose room and restore the northernmost turf play fields. Due to the delays, the cost to complete these projects has exceeded the original budget. To fund the remaining work, the board approved a 25-year, $3.9 million loan with Capital One similar to one approved in 2020 when legal challenges delayed the construction of the classroom buildings.

The multipurpose room is located next to a new outdoor amphitheater with multi-colored steps that mimic the rising or setting sun over the ocean. The Cullen Bell, a bell from a broken down locomotive train that has been part of the Cardiff School campus since 1913, will also be relocated next to the building.

The Cardiff School District board and superintendent.
(Karen Billing)

According to the district, the multipurpose room allows the school to implement long-awaited safety measures, including providing a single point of entry for all visitors and limiting access for large events to one area instead of allowing visitors to walk through the middle of campus.

“We are so excited to finally complete these necessary improvements for our students’ and families’ safety, security, and educational programs” said Rhea Stewart, board president in a news release. “After the tragic incident in Texas weeks ago, we are reminded that nothing is more important than campus safety. This settlement allows us to finally complete this critical feature of our campus to make sure our students and teachers gain access to additional 21st century school facilities improvements and remain safe.”

With the issues resolved, Save the Park and Build the School reflected on the winners and losers of its four-year resistance effort.

“Save the Park’s lawsuits sought to force the district to comply with this law. With this settlement and payment to fund additional park area, the district admits that it is not above the law,” read a statement from Save the Park. “While Berkich Park is sadly forever altered, the rule of law has prevailed.”

Among the losers, Save the Park listed Cardiff taxpayers and among the winners, whoever gets the new replacement park —Save the Park said that they plan to follow up to keep the state on task.

Save the Park stated: “It is important to remember who authored this mess: a district administration who dismissed early advice about legal impediments and refused to revise their plans before expenses were incurred; a school board who rubber-stamped every administration decision without question...and a Citizens Oversight Committee that utterly failed in its charter to report taxpayer waste to the public, notwithstanding a court’s clear finding of taxpayer waste.”

Cardiff School remains open for public use of the George Berkich Playfields and the other outdoor recreation areas of Cardiff School when school is not in session.

Construction is expected to begin soon and the project is anticipated to be finished by spring 2023.