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Audit: Seismic regulator must improve building plan oversight

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The office that oversees the seismic safety of California's public schools can't show that it has approved all building plan changes, heightening the risk that some schools don't meet standards and are unsafe, according to a state auditor's report. 

The Division of the State Architect is required to ensure that all school building plans meet earthquake safety standards. But a review by the California State Auditor's office found that changes in plans frequently aren't approved and that the regulatory office lacks processes to track the alterations.

The report urges regulators to improve their handling of school "change documents" to lessen the possibility of contractors erecting an unsafe building. The report states:

Regulations require that the school districts’ design professionals submit plan changes to the division for review and approval before undertaking related construction.

However, several holes in the plan change process create a situation where the division cannot demonstrate that it has approved all plan changes before the start of related construction, risking construction that does not meet building standards and that may be unsafe.

In fact, the division’s Project Certification Guide states that there have been many instances where the field change process was not followed and change orders did not receive division approval, yet construction was completed.

In a letter to the auditor, Fred Klass, director of the Department of General Services, pledged that new rules would be implemented by the end of the year that would assure "all relevant plan changes are received, reviewed, approved and documented by the division." The general services department is the parent body of the state architect's office.

California law requires the state architect's office to enforce the Field Act – seismic regulations for schools that were enacted nearly 80 years ago. The law is considered a gold standard of construction, and it requires oversight from state regulators to ensure professional engineering and quality control from the early design phase to the first day of classes.

The Field Act grants these regulators "the police power of the state" over the construction of public schools.

"The (department) is firmly committed to effectively and efficiently overseeing the plan review functions performed by the (state architect's office)," Klass wrote. "As part of its continuing efforts to improve that process, the (department) will take appropriate actions to address the issues presented in the report."

The auditor's report, released May 31, concluded a two-part review requested last year by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, and other state legislators. The legislators made the request in response to a California Watch investigation last year that found that more than 16,000 school projects don't meet Field Act standards, and at least 59,000 more have yet to be fully reviewed by the state architect’s office. Roughly 42,000 students attend schools with unresolved safety issues, California Watch found.

In December, auditors issued the first part of its review – a scathing report that concluded that regulator oversight was “neither effective nor comprehensive."

The May audit found other weaknesses at the agency, including no proof of employee training on rule changes, inaccurate and unreliable data about the agency's workload, and missing documentation concerning agency actions and decisions.

The state architect's office should set goals to make certain its building plan reviews are done efficiently and seek outside contracting help during workload peaks, the report suggested.

Corbett, who has proposed legislation that would form a panel of experts to devise fixes to the broken oversight system, said the latest audit raises new questions and highlights the need for reform.

"The auditor makes clear that changes in construction plans in the past have not been adequately reviewed and documented,” Corbett said in a statement. “Although I am encouraged by the progress being made by the new state architect, this audit underscores the need for legislation that I have authored to make sure the job is being done to certify that school buildings are seismically safe and that we protect our California school children.”

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