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Safe, Smart School-Building

March 09, 2004

With the narrow passage last week of Proposition 55, the state will have $12.3 billion in bond money to spend on building and fixing public schools. More than $16 billion in projects are approved for funding, so efficient use of the money at hand is imperative.

The question is, do California schools really need a California-certified inspector watching each weld at a steel plant in Texas that produces beams for the schools, or two inspectors at the local construction site?

California's rules for building schools are endlessly detailed, yet it's unclear whether all of them make for better campuses. Some modernization is in order.

Special rules for public school construction arose after the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 destroyed or severely damaged 190 schools. Few children were injured because the quake hit after school hours, but California was rightly jolted into higher seismic standards for schools.

Construction has changed since the Long Beach earthquake. An upgraded building code adopted after the 1971 Sylmar quake means most modern office buildings meet pretty much the same standards as schools, without a tedious inspection process. A Little Hoover Commission report concluded that the two types of buildings performed about the same in a major quake.

No one has a firm figure for what continuous inspection adds to the cost of construction. Some say about 5%, others up to 25%. The number should be nailed down, but whatever it is there may be hundreds of millions of dollars to be saved -- and spread around to build more schools.

The state might always want some extra inspection for schools. But two people all day, every day at every site and others sent to a factory 1,000 miles away amount to an overdose of precaution. Recent rules allow schools to be in existing buildings as long as they offer seismic safety similar to that of new schools. Less-restrictive thinking of this kind could apply to new construction.

The state also should streamline the system of approval that now requires each school plan to pass through at least four state agencies. In 2000, the Little Hoover Commission recommended a multi-agency, one-stop shop to give one coherent response, shaving months, money and frustration from the procedure. It deserves adoption.

The state recently began allowing districts to reuse plans when they build multiple campuses. The schools are structurally the same, though cosmetically they may look very different. The state should develop a library of plans so districts can borrow them. Tried and proven school blueprints could mean faster approval and fewer change orders -- enormous money savers.

The children of California are waiting for their buildings. Let's get them built as quickly as is safely possible.

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