The Schwarzenegger administration hamstrung the ability of state regulators to ensure schools are built safely by imposing hiring freezes and furloughs during a school building boom, an official with a prominent architects lobby said recently.
Kurt Cooknick, director of regulation for the American Institute of Architects' California Council, said California Watch's stories about problems at the Division of the State Architect illustrate what happens when an agency is starved of resources. Cooknick said several governors have been guilty of ignoring the state architect's needs. But he singled out the Schwarzenegger administration for "knowingly" making matters worse.
Cooknick lobbies state officials on behalf of the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The organization maintains close contact with the Division of the State Architect, the chief regulator of construction standards for public schools, and regularly advises the governor on matters related to the office.
The state architect's work is funded from the fees it charges. But California Watch found that during the 1980s and 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson's administration shifted nearly $6.5 million from the state architect’s office. The money was never repaid.
Over the course of his term, Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature borrowed $35 million from the office; they paid it back by 2003. Five years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration borrowed $60 million more. To date, only $10 million from that budget raid has been returned.
In 2009, Schwarzenegger officials mandated that the office participate in the same hiring freezes, overtime restrictions and furloughs as the rest of state government. The decision occurred as several local school districts were in the middle of a building boom.
Architects and school districts pleaded with Schwarzenegger officials to rethink those restrictions, citing concerns over building delays and higher costs. The concerns fell on "deaf ears," Cooknick said.
"These are outcomes people shouldn't be surprised by," Cooknick said. "I'm not an apologist for (the state architect). They have problems that have to be addressed. But you can't keep putting more and more on top of people and expect them to produce quality. As far as I know, you still can't get from Sacramento to LA on a gallon of gas."
Cooknick's group is one of several communicating with Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, in preparation for a hearing about problems with school seismic safety. The hearing is scheduled for April 27.
Corbett called for the hearing in response to California Watch's "On Shaky Ground" series, which found that thousands of public school projects failed to meet the state's safety requirements. Hundreds of building inspectors missed safety defects or falsified reports – and were rewarded with more work. And the state has made it all but impossible for schools to get money to fix seismically unsafe buildings.
Gil Duran, press secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown, said Brown's office is looking into the problems raised in the California Watch series.
Duran referred all questions about the previous administration to H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance who worked under Schwarzenegger. Palmer was unavailable and did not respond to requests for comment last week. In previous interviews, Palmer said he doesn’t believe the office made any mistakes in calculating the number of schools that would qualify for the bond money. The formula was based on information the administration had at the time, he said.
In a letter sent to California Watch last week (below), another official with the state architects lobby, Executive President Paul Welch, called the number of uncertified schools "serious" but not a surprise to "anyone involved in meeting the demands of California’s public school construction process."
Cooknick said he worried that outrage over the stories could lead to calls for the elimination of the state architect's office, which would force unequipped and understaffed local building departments into the school regulation business. Cooknick said the agency needs reforms, but it was the "devil" architects have come to know.
"I think DSA needs improvement. But I think DSA is the answer," Cooknick said.