Report calls for new school construction leader

Tucked inside the 90-page report, called "Schools of the Future," is a proposal that would wrest control of school construction oversight from the state's engineers at the Division of the State Architect and transfer it to the state Department of Education.

The recommendations represent the culmination of months of meetings held by school officials, construction contractors, academics and lobbyists, organized by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

One scenario places the state superintendent atop a super-agency that would house the state architect's office, the Office of Public School Construction and Department of Education planning officials. Another proposal suggests Torlakson's office would have an executive officer and a coordinating officer to oversee the work of the agencies involved in creating and enforcing school construction rules. The report states such a change would speed up construction and save schools money:

"Today, the program is complex with four different state departments writing state regulations. Some school districts even hire outside consultants to navigate the application process. After 12 years, it is time to re-evaluate the program and ensure it is as streamlined a program as possible."

Torlakson announced the release of the report at a ceremony marking the installation of a solar power system at Aragon High School and five other campuses in the San Mateo Union High School District.

Torlakson said in a recent statement that many of the report's recommendations require further study. He did not take a public position on the specific calls to expand his construction oversight powers, but state education department officials confirmed his office was reviewing the specific proposal.

Torlakson did, however, pledge to work immediately on the report's other proposals, including sponsoring new legislation to encourage schools to install solar and other renewable energy systems and supporting a new statewide bond for school construction.

"Our students deserve to learn in schools designed for the 21st century -- not relics of the past," Torlakson said. "California can lead the way, and help our schools save money and create good jobs in the process. The solar power system coming online ... at Aragon High School shows that the time to create the schools of the future is now."

Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Department of General Services, said his agency is reviewing the report and its recommendations. The department is the parent organization of both the state architect's office and public school construction office. The state architect's office has been the chief regulator of school construction since 1933. The public school construction office disperses state money for school building projects and monitors its usage by school districts.

"DGS' Office of Public School Construction and Division of the State Architect have a strong working relationship with the Department of Education and look forward to continuing to identify improvements that can be made to help local districts fund and construct safe classrooms for California schoolchildren," Lamoureux said.

Although the report suggests current state oversight is too burdensome for schools, both the state architect and public construction office have come under scrutiny in recent months for being too lax.

A California Watch investigation found the state architect's office had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, California's landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. A Department of Finance audit found the public school construction office routinely ignored the requirements to audit projects and may have improperly awarded millions to school districts.

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

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