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Los Gatos school leaders end seismic-related construction stall

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Los Gatos school trustees have rescinded a contentious decision to close a mountain community's elementary school and halt plans for a new campus over concerns about seismic safety and cost increases.

During a meeting last week, trustees for the Los Gatos Union School District reversed themselves and ordered the district's engineering contractor, Pacific Crest Engineering, to complete the work requested by the California Geological Survey to ensure the seismic safety of a new Lexington Elementary School.

Trustees also voted 5-0 to suspend the transfer of students from existing buildings at Lexington to portable buildings at Fisher Middle School – a decision that was met with loud applause and cheers from about 200 parents and community members present. 

Residents were promised school improvements for Lexington Elementary when they voted for school bonds during the 2001 and 2010 elections. Parents gathered about 2,000 signatures in an online petition to keep Lexington open and have been vocal in their displeasure with an April board vote to shutter the school.  

"The actions were in the right direction," Los Gatos resident Nancy Moss wrote in an e-mail to California Watch. "But until we get the green light to actual scoop up that first shovel of dirt, it's not over."  

Last month, school trustees stopped construction at Lexington and approved a plan to close the campus after the state geologist's office found that Pacific Crest didn't adequately account for seismic hazards at the school site.

According to a March 27 letter to the district, state geologists found that Pacific Crest's analysis failed to account for ground moisture in its predictions about land stability, despite test results that showed evidence of water-saturated soil.

State geologists also concluded that the engineering report underestimated the severity of earthquake forces at the school. Lexington Elementary has been at its Old Santa Cruz Highway location since the 1950s. The property is vulnerable to landslides and is near the San Andreas Fault, one of the most active in the nation. Pacific Crest's report is based on ground shaking during a 7.3-magnitude earthquake. But state geologists said the school should be designed to withstand an 8.0-magnitude quake, which is what seismic experts recommend for that area:

According to the National Seismic Hazard Maps, the M8.0 earthquake is the characteristic earthquake from co-seismic rupture of all four northern San Andreas fault segments (Offshore, North Coast, Peninsula, and Santa Cruz Mountain) and it represents the largest contribution to the ground motion hazards at the Lexington Elementary School site. ...

Consequently, the consultants' emphasis of a M7.35 scenario instead of a M8.0 scenario in their duration estimation is not conservative.

Construction estimates for Lexington increased from $18 million to $21.5 million, in large part from spending close to $4 million on geological work, fire upgrades, planning and architectural designs.

School trustees voted in April to abandon the campus after hearing Pacific Crest testimony about future costs and school attorney warnings about the legal risk of children and teachers exposed to unaddressed hazards.

That decision outraged community members, who accused the district of overreacting. Others charged the state with being too strict in enforcing seismic safety requirements.

Parent and taxpayer complaints reached local Assemblymen Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Rich Gordon, D-Los Altos. Both representatives joined talks earlier this month to break through the logjam between state geologists, district officials and contractors.

As a result of those talks, Pacific Crest will create additional computer models to assess the impact of an 8.0-magnitude earthquake at the Lexington school site. District officials expect Pacific Crest's work to be completed and reviewed by state geologists by mid-June. Board trustees will discuss the results of the state's review June 19.

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