In 2004, Liberty High School had just laid new carpet, finalized a fresh paint job and installed up-to-date air-conditioning units when the Liberty Union High School District learned the campus was on a state list of school buildings that may be unsafe in an earthquake.
Alarmed and trying to be responsive, the district initiated and oversaw $400,000 in structural examinations and created design plans to fix Liberty's seven buildings, says Wayne Reeves, district director of project development.
But the small district in Contra Costa County soon ran out of money. The district's repair plans were further stymied by the state's restrictive rules then governing access to financial aid. Without a way to raise approximately $5 million to make seismic repairs, the effort to fix potentially unsafe buildings stalled, Reeves said.
"There are plenty of districts that haven't done anything," Reeves said. "We were trying to be proactive. But we don't have that type of money."
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Reeves was among 30 people who packed a Sacramento conference room last week to hear officials from the Division of the State Architect discuss a new process to obtain $194 million in unused seismic retrofit funds.
With closed-circuit video feeds piped into Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego, acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith and policy deputy Masha Lutsuk explained the new procedures for school districts to qualify for funds. The state architect's office, which oversees school construction, has been working on a new qualification process since July, after the State Allocation Board scrapped the restrictive rules that blocked districts from obtaining the money.
But a California Watch analysis of recently released state documents found board members approved new rules that may make it too costly for some districts to apply for the funds. Specifically, districts must prove risks that could cause catastrophic collapse.
If a school district claims the potential for extremely strong ground shaking endangers its buildings, it would need only a licensed structural engineer's report deeming the buildings unsafe, according to recently published state documents.
However, if a district applies based on fault, liquefaction or landslide dangers, it would need to pay up front for a structural engineer's examination, a geologist's field study and a review from the state geologist's office – an expensive proposition to qualify for financial aid. Pinpointing dangerous faults or soil that could liquefy requires extensive testing, sampling and digging that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
And there are other cost factors.
A district must pay for a field review to ensure that the buildings being seismically upgraded meet current state laws ensuring safe access for disabled students. If not, then those accessibility elements must be updated as well.
California Watch's On Shaky Ground investigation found cost concerns at the center of 40 years' worth of lax enforcement of geohazard laws by the state. A sampling of school districts inside known earthquake fault zones also found frequent violations of the requirement to investigate faults, liquefaction and landslide threats. Since 2007, school districts have told state officials that the upfront costs of the structural engineering review requirement discouraged them from participating in the seismic mitigation program.
At last week's meeting, Smith tried to ease concern over geohazard testing costs. He said he believes only 10 percent of projects will need to undertake those reviews.
But officials continued to express cost worries throughout the meeting.
Eric Bakke, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District, wanted more information on what districts could expect when working with the state geologist's office on geohazard reviews.
Ron Gallagher, an Oakland-based structural engineer, criticized the new procedures and questioned why the state insisted upon a "catastrophic risk" standard that differed from the safety standard that has been in use nationwide.
"This is not going to fix life-safety hazards at the lowest cost," Gallagher said. "I think the proposed procedure represents an unnecessary hardship."
Reeves said the meeting did nothing to extinguish his frustrations.
"This puts us back to zero," Reeves said. "Right now, they've thrown more regulations at us, which means more roadblocks. I essentially have to take $400,000, throw it out the door and start over."
Lutsuk said the final regulations have to be reviewed by legal and fiscal analysts before they are sent to the Office of Administrative Law for approval. State officials did not provide details on the status of that review.