Prompted by a scathing audit and proposed legislation, the state's top construction administrators are scheduled today to discuss ways to improve the seismic safety and oversight of public school building projects.
State Architect Chester Widom and Lisa Silverman, executive officer for the Office of Public School Construction, will appear before a special meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness at 10 a.m. at Canyon Middle School in Castro Valley.
The hearing will be the first public update on state reforms initiated in the wake of a California Watch investigation and a California State Auditor report that found serious problems in how the state ensures the earthquake safety of its schools.
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California Watch last year found the state had routinely failed to enforce the seismic safety requirements, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards that were reported during construction. The investigation triggered a state audit that concluded that regulators had failed to ensure schools were safe. The audit slammed the state's oversight, calling it “neither effective nor comprehensive.”
Widom and Silverman will be joined by representatives from California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing and Professional Engineers in Government. The discussion likely will foreshadow issues that will be presented before the Senate Governmental Organization Committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday. That hearing will focus on SB 1271, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro.
Under the bill, a task force would have until Jan. 1, 2014, to adopt new building standards and policies to bolster school seismic safety. Next week, the governmental committee could decide the bill's future.
Representatives from the school housing coalition and California Coalition of Professional Construction Inspectors have spoken in support of seismic safety reform. But the two groups have differing views on regulatory enforcement.
At issue is whether children and teachers should be allowed to enter buildings that have unaddressed safety hazards. The inspectors group says no.
In a recent white paper spelling out its concerns, the inspectors group blamed a change made in the 1980s to the seismic safety law for spawning the problems plaguing school construction oversight. They propose revising the law so that school construction regulators can block entry when incomplete work poses risks:
This single line has allowed school districts to occupy buildings with known defects and in essence gambling on the safety of our children. In all other public and private buildings, building departments issue temporary certificates of occupancy. Practically speaking, such certificates are issued when there are no issues effecting structural, life safety, fire, accessibility, or concerns for public health or safety. Such temporary certificates normally run 30 to 90 days, giving ample time to complete minor issues while still allowing occupancy.
However, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a lobbying group that advocates for school districts, worries that cash-strapped school administrators will get hit with crippling delays and cost increases if the state assumes the responsibility of deciding when students can enter buildings. On April 17, Thomas Duffy, legislative director for the coalition, wrote a letter to Sen. Roderick D. Wright, D-Inglewood, chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, arguing that the decision to occupy must remain in local hands:
C.A.S.H. is opposed to any penalty that would deny beneficial occupancy of a school at construction completion prior to receipt of certification: the extensive, complicated, and expensive nature of school project site and plan approval borne at the local level, the continuous and robust nature of the oversight and inspection during the construction process at the local level, and the final responsibility and ultimate liability of the school district for the project in total dictates that the authority for occupancy must continue to reside with the school district, not a state agency.
A second report from the state auditor's investigation into the Division of the State Architect is due in May. That probe will examine the agency's process for reviewing school districts' construction plans to ensure they meet code requirements.