New rules restrict seismic repair money for schools

August 22, 2011 1:18:17 PM PDT
In a move designed to kick-start the review and repair of 7,600 potentially unsafe California school buildings, the State Allocation Board in May scrapped restrictive rules that blocked school districts' access to nearly $200 million in seismic retrofit money.

But weeks after lowering technical hurdles to the cash, board members approved new rules that may make it too costly for some districts to apply for the funds.

The Division of the State Architect, the state's chief regulator of school construction, is scheduled to discuss the new rules at a public meeting Thursday in Sacramento.

At issue is a board decision in June to allow districts to seek seismic money if they could prove catastrophic risk from ground shaking, earthquake faults, liquefaction or landslides.

If a school district decides to use the ground-shaking option when applying, it would only need a licensed structural engineer's report deeming the buildings unsafe, according to recently published state documents.

However, if a district chooses to apply based on fault, liquefaction or landslide dangers, it would need to pay upfront for a structural engineer's examination, a geologist's field study and a review from the state geologist's office ? an expensive proposition to qualify for financial aid. It is more so for cash-strapped districts grappling with a budget crunch.

A contract with the California Geological Survey is a flat $3,600 fee. Bigger bills come when a geologist attempts to pinpoint dangerous faults or soil that could liquefy. Such work requires extensive tests, sampling and digging that can cost tens of thousands more.

Several State Allocation Board members were unavailable for comment. But one member, Kathleen Moore, who directs facilities planning for the state Education Department, defended the decision.

"The requirements for these reports have been in place for some time and are both reasonable and necessary to ensure the safety of students," Moore said. "While costs are always a concern, our first responsibility is to be sure our schools are safe for the children, teachers and school staff members who use them."

Gretchen Zeagler, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, which oversees the state architect's office, said requiring geohazard investigations before applying would save districts time and money because they would know whether they qualify sooner rather than later. Any upfront costs for geohazard works could be reimbursed if the district was approved for funds, Zeagler said.

"Does this mean costs up front? Perhaps," Zeagler said. "But this is work districts would have to do anyway if the site conditions warranted it."

California Watch's On Shaky Ground investigation found cost concerns at the center of 40 years' worth of lax enforcement of geohazard laws by the state. A sampling of school districts inside known earthquake fault zone areas also found frequent violations of the requirement to investigate faults, liquefaction and landslide threats.

The new rules could finally compel school districts to conduct overdue geohazard investigations. But given that several school districts told state officials the structural engineering review discouraged them from participating in the seismic mitigation program, it's likely the additional geohazard costs will deepen some districts' lack of interest.

The issue highlights California's immense challenge in assuring seismic safety at public schools. For nearly a decade, there have been more than 7,600 school buildings flagged by the state as potentially vulnerable in an earthquake.

To date, only two schools have accessed the $199 million earmarked by voters in 2006 for earthquake upgrades. San Ramon Valley High School received $3.6 million to build a new gym, and Piedmont High School was awarded $1 million for two renovation projects.

But as the Schwarzenegger administration decided how to dole out the seismic repair money, it worried about a rush on the funding, according to internal e-mails and memos obtained by California Watch. The concern prompted the administration to set a high bar for schools to qualify. The rules subsequently were approved by the former State Allocation Board.

Instead of thousands of schools vying for the money, about three dozen buildings ? at school districts in Humboldt, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Alameda, Los Angeles and San Benito counties ? met the requirements. A subsequent analysis for the Office of Public School Construction reduced the number of qualified schools even further, to just 20 buildings in the state.

In late March, after California Watch began questioning the formula, State Allocation Board members created a subcommittee to study ways to create "greater accessibility" to the seismic mitigation program. Months later, the board threw out the rules created during the Schwarzenegger era and created a new process.

The process is under review now by the Office of Administrative Law but not yet approved, Zeagler said.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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