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Schools Pass Up Quake Safety Study

Few districts request results of a state survey that found 7,537 buildings that might imperil students in the event of a big temblor.

March 29, 2004|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

Sixteen months ago, the state released a study identifying thousands of public school buildings that might perform poorly in a big quake. But few school districts have bothered to review the study, and even fewer have attempted to upgrade buildings that might imperil students.

The study found that 7,537 school buildings, about 10% of the total number of such buildings in California, could fall short of "achieving life-safety performance in future earthquakes." It estimated retrofitting them to this standard would cost $4.7 billion.

Since it was released by the state architect's office on Nov. 15, 2002, only about 30 of the state's 1,000 school districts have asked to be informed of how their buildings fared in the study. The study's main proponent, Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro), said she had been informed of only a few school districts, in the Bay Area, that have undertaken any work to fix deficient buildings.

Because of the way the study was crafted, school districts must request the information to learn which buildings might be at risk. When the Legislature approved legislation by Corbett authorizing the study in 1999, it agreed that the names of the schools could be released to school districts, but not to the general public.

This provision was included, Corbett said, at the request of aides to then-Gov. Gray Davis. "They did not want widespread panic," she said.

Dennis Bellet, the official in the state architect's office responsible for the study, defended the withholding of school names, because the study had been based upon a review of building plans. Buildings would have to be inspected on-site to be certain if they met state code or not, he said.

School districts requesting the study can decide whether they wish to release the names of schools mentioned in the report.

The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts requested information from the study. However, because of what Los Angeles officials described as a foul-up of several e-mails over a year, Los Angeles did not receive the information until this month.

San Diego did get the information, but only now is the San Diego school board being asked to authorize $50,000 to inspect schools to see whether they are actually out of compliance.

"If we find that there is a life-safety issue, then we would have to go back to the board to do a study on how to finance repairs," said San Diego schools architect Jim Watts.

The study mandated by the Corbett legislation sought to determine how many of the state's public school buildings were out of compliance with the Field Act, which sets standards for earthquake safety.

The original Field Act was passed into law after the magnitude 6.3 Long Beach earthquake of 1933 severely damaged many schools. By happenstance, that quake hit after classes were over and schools were largely empty. The act mandated seismic protections for public schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, but not for private or state university school buildings, an omission that continues to this day.

The provisions of the Field Act were changed over the years as new information was obtained on better protections, and many older concrete schools are believed to now be out of compliance with the latest requirements.

Corbett's legislation calling for the study was introduced with the backing of the state's Seismic Safety Commission.

Bellet, principal structural engineer of the state architect's office, said that the office designated for study 16,000 of the state's 70,000 public school buildings, focusing on those built of more vulnerable concrete, rather than safer wood frames. The office later categorized 9,672 buildings in its report.

Of these, 2,122 of the buildings were held "likely to perform well, and ... were expected (but not guaranteed) to achieve life-safety performance in future earthquakes." However, the report said, 7,537 buildings "are not expected to perform as well."

The report was finished in 2001 but held for review by the state finance department, and not released until Nov. 15, 2002.

Although Bellet confirmed that only 30 districts, or about 3% of the statewide total, had asked to be informed about the report's findings, he noted that some of the districts not requesting information were both small and in areas of the state where earthquakes are uncommon.

Jim Delker, a facilities executive with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the district had requested the list of possibly deficient school buildings last year.

Bellet said the information had been e-mailed three times over the year, but that he had just learned this month that it hadn't been received. It has now been sent out again, Bellet said. It's unclear how many buildings might be affected in the L.A. district, or how much it would cost to retrofit them.

Corbett, in a recent interview, described herself as "heartbroken" that, in the state's present fiscal crisis, "the money hasn't been found" to follow through on the study and repair deficient buildings.

In January, she introduced additional legislation to require that state regulations be adopted by Jan. 1, 2006, to create a seismic safety upgrade program for school facilities, to be funded eventually through school bond issues.

Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who is vice chair of the State Seismic Safety Commission, said she hoped every school district "takes this very seriously and assesses schools on the list."

Jones said she had approached her own children's school district, La Canada Unified, and it had assessed its schools on the list, only to find that they were not deficient, despite being of early design.

"So they were safer than the state architect thought, but we can't be sure that's the case elsewhere," Jones said. "For our children's sake, it's important to check."

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