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LA officials step up efforts on school seismic safety

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Concerned about a renewed state focus and the potential for lawsuits, the Los Angeles County Office of Education has stepped up efforts to help local school officials investigate the seismic safety of their buildings.

In June, the office asked Terry Tao, an attorney who specializes in construction issues, to talk to about 52 representatives from school districts in Los Angeles and Orange counties about how to avoid legal troubles posed by a 2002 state list of school buildings deemed potentially unsafe in an earthquake.

Roger Chang, business services coordinator at the county education office, said officials invited Tao because they wanted to provide information and options for school facilities staffs. Chang, who said his office has been monitoring recent state meetings on school seismic safety, added that the workshop in June with school districts reminded officials that if they don't act to make improvements, there will be consequences.

"If you have to pay for a lawsuit, that is less money you can use for education," Chang told California Watch yesterday. "One of the things we always tell the districts is, 'Safety first, but at the same time, it won't be good if you're sued.' "

School districts generally have been sluggish to address the state list. A California Watch investigation, "On Shaky Ground," analyzed state data and found less than 10 percent of the more than 9,000 schools on the state list had even done an evaluation of their campuses' seismic risk.

The June 9 meeting already is getting results. After the meeting, Tao sent Chang sample resolutions that mapped out a potential course of action for district leaders while helping local board members understand the seriousness of the matter. The El Monte Union High School District board on July 20 became one of the first to adopt one of the resolutions, pledging to hire a structural engineer to examine district buildings' seismic safety.

The next step for the district is an attempt to get state repair funds, said Ryan Di Giulio, the district's chief business official.

All of the district's campuses – Arroyo High, El Monte High, Mountain View High, Rosemead High, Ledesma High, South El Monte High and El Monte-Rosemead Adult School – were built on ground that could liquefy during an earthquake, according to state mapping data. Mountain View High, which opened in 1971, has 11 buildings completely made of masonry material, known to crumble and cause injuries in past quakes. 

"It (the resolution) demonstrates the intent of what the district wants to do," Chang said. "No school wants to be unsafe. When the board takes an action and directs you to do things – that's how things get done."

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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