State moves to end strict rules for seismic repair funds

Five years ago, voters approved nearly $200 million in bond funds for seismic repairs at thousands of school building across the state. But the state's rigid rules have made it almost impossible to access the money.

The funding formula developed by the former Schwarzenegger administration is tied to an extremely high threshold -- qualifying only schools that are likely to endure ground movement more intense than the Northridge and Loma Prieta earthquakes.

A subcommittee of the State Allocation Board, which controls bond funding for school districts, directed the Office of Public School Construction to find new ways to qualify more schools for repair money.

The suggested fix, proposed by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Danville, would redirect the nearly $200 million set aside for seismic repairs into existing renovation money managed by the state.

School districts with buildings on the state's list of potentially unsafe structures would only need a structural engineer and officials at the Division of the State Architect to conclude a building was unsafe to qualify for funds, Buchanan said. She said an evaluation by multiple engineers seemed to be a more powerful measure of a building's safety than a ground shaking number.

"Isn't the whole goal of this program to fix schools that are potentially unsafe for our children and our employees?" Buchanan asked. "Then those buildings ought to be fixed and they shouldn't be held to some potentially arbitrary number."

Roughly 50 people attended yesterday's meeting at the Department of Finance.

A California Watch investigation found that the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made it virtually impossible for school districts to access the pot of money set aside for urgent seismic repairs on more than 7,500 school buildings, listed for nearly a decade as potentially unsafe.

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.

To date, only two East Bay schools have accessed the fund. The rest of the money remains unspent amid massive budget shortfalls.

Acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith stood by the current criteria yesterday, warning that Buchanan's proposal of favoring structural engineering reviews would open up the state to plenty of "highly subjective" reports.

"I think the basis as used today is appropriate," Smith said. "I would advise sticking with standards."

But others at the meeting voiced problems with the state's criteria.

Michael Brady, assistant superintendent at Piedmont Unified School District, said the two Piedmont High School school projects that received about $1 million from the state's fund weren't initially on the list.

A structural engineer, hired by the school district for roughly $67,000, struggled for a year to convince the state architect's office that the campus buildings were dangerous and mistakenly excluded from the state's list of potentially hazardous buildings. There is another building that the structural engineer's study concluded was unsafe but has yet to be approved for funding, Brady said.

"The point is this: We invested $67,000 for the structural engineering work in order to bring our buildings to somebody else's attention," Brady said. "In other words, AB 300 didn't find us, we found AB 300."

Wael Elatar, facilities administrator for San Bernardino City Unified School District, wanted to know more about the state's recent evaluation of two school buildings, deemed potentially hazardous. Elatar said he was told the buildings were disqualified from funding considerations because it didn't meet the state's structural criteria.

But he argued that the buildings were still risky considering they were built in the 1950s near the San Andreas Fault and face ground motion of 1.82g -- far in excess of current requirements.

David Zian, who oversees the seismic funding for the Office of Public School Construction, acknowledged the structural review didn't go further once Elatar's buildings were considered "disqualified."

Elatar asked that the state consider completing its evaluation of the buildings so that the ultimate safety can be determined.

"In reality," Elatar said, "we are not really sure how the buildings will perform in an earthquake."

The State Allocation Board created the subcommittee to look for ways to create "greater accessibility" to the Seismic Mitigation Program. The committee includes Buchanan, Scott Harvey, acting director of the Department of General Services, and Kathleen Moore, head of the Department of Education's facilities planning division.

The committee will review the staff's research at another meeting in about two weeks.

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

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