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School construction safety bill advances

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Legislation aimed at overhauling the state's school construction law sailed through the Senate Education Committee yesterday. 

Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, introduced the bill, SB 1271, following a California Watch investigation and scathing state audit that found state regulators charged with overseeing school construction had failed to ensure that school buildings are safe. It now heads to the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. 

The bill establishes a task force that would have until Jan. 1, 2014, to consider changes in the law to better protect schoolchildren during earthquakes. 

Following committee recommendations, the bill was narrowed yesterday to focus the task force's activities on changes that would prohibit the use of a school building where the state has identified significant safety concerns and would implement penalties for school districts that do not provide all the required construction documents.

Corbett said the bill is still a work in progress pending a public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery, scheduled for April 20.

Representatives from California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing and the California Coalition of Professional Construction Inspectors spoke yesterday in support of the bill.

In a letter to the committee, the inspectors coalition stressed that the current practice of allowing schools to use buildings that have not complied with state standards compromises the entire seismic safety program. “No other private or public permit department allows occupancy before the building is signed off as safe so why should schools be allowed this loophole?” wrote Skip Daum, on behalf of the organization.

While the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which represents school districts and construction professionals, supports the bill, it is opposed to preventing a school district from using a building that had not been signed off by the state.

Steve Newsom, an architect and representative of the group, argued that schools lacking state approval was mostly a paperwork issue, not a safety issue. “To state that we shouldn’t let a school district use that school or that building I think is a very dangerous path to go down.”

Corbett responded, “There are differences of opinion about that.”

The other major concerns raised at yesterday's hearing focused on who will sit on the task force.

The bill originally proposed that it include representatives from the Division of the State Architect, Bureau of State Audits, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and Office of Emergency Services. In the bill analysis, committee staff questioned including representatives from the Bureau of State Audits and the Office of Emergency Services, as neither has expertise in school construction. Stakeholders recommended adding a school district representative, a school construction professional and a school inspector.

A second report from the state auditor's investigation into the Division of the State Architect is due in May. The upcoming report – focused on on the agency's process of reviewing school districts' construction plans to ensure they meet code requirements  also might affect the bill.

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