Former farm lab partners sue school district

ENCINITAS — Two farmers who originally partnered with the Encinitas Union School District to develop its farm lab on Quail Gardens Drive are suing the district for $5.28 million, contending that the school district breached its contract with them.

The E.A.T. Well Group, composed of Scott Murray and Jerry Miller, filed their suit in October, alleging the school district prevented them from fulfilling their duties toward developing the farm education center during their one-year deal with the school district, which they fully expected would lead to a 30-year partnership between both parties.

Instead, the lawsuit states, the district blocked the company from performing improvements required under the year contract and ultimately opted not to renew the agreement. Currently, the district manages the burgeoning farm education center, which is producing crops used in district lunches and has hosted students and school board retreats in the portable classrooms on the site.

Encinitas Union has filed a cross-complaint of its own this month, alleging that Murray and Miller failed to live up to its obligations during the brief partnership.

According to the 19-page lawsuit, discussions between Murray and the school district date back to 2011, when school district officials expressed a desire to do something with the 10-acre property on Quail Gardens Drive, as it would incur tax liabilities if it did not build a traditional school on the land. Murray suggested using the land for a science or agricultural-based lab center, using four portable surplus classrooms that he already owned.

Although the District originally envisioned a longer-term agreement between the parties — it had an item on the Dec. 10, 2013 agenda to enter into a joint operating agreement with Eat Well, but board members pulled the item — it entered into a one-year licensing agreement with Eat Well in May 2013.

According to the suit, both Miller and Murray invested a lot of time and money into the endeavor, with Miller going as far as relocating his family from Colorado because they believed the one-year deal would result in long-term security.

But it never materialized.

According to Eat Well’s attorney, Gregory Woodard, during the yearlong license, the district took various actions to prevent Murray and Miller from doing work on the site. In one example cited in the suit, the district changed the locks on the property and refused to give the farmers the key, so they couldn’t access the property.

In another instance, the lawsuit states that Murray and Miller submitted plans to the district for developing the lab, but the district instructed them to delay submitting them until it could receive regional and state approvals. Finally, they said, the district changed the configuration of an adjacent community garden on the site, further frustrating their efforts.

In March 2014, according to the suit, the district ceased communications with the partnership. In April 2014, according to the lawsuit, the district expressed concern that Eat Well was not living up to its end of the contract and informed the farmers that they would let the license expire.

Shortly thereafter, the district partnered up with a local nonprofit, Healthy Day Partners, to manage the farm lab.

That partnership lasted until earlier this year, when the district hired one of Healthy Day’s principals, Mim Michelove, to manage the farm lab in house.

The $5,279,384 amount being demanded in the lawsuit represents lost projected revenue over the 30-year contract, as well as expenses incurred during the yearlong license.

Encinitas Union superintendent Tim Baird said that the district realized that it would be more prudent for the district to control both management and the instructional programming at the farm lab, and denies that the district locked the farmers out of the property.

He characterized the suit as without merit, and fully anticipates the district will prevail.

The district’s counter suit seeks compensatory damages and legal fees.

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