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Senate leader wants task force to improve school seismic safety

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The chairwoman of the state Senate disaster preparedness committee is calling for new building standards and an overhaul of California's seismic safety law in the wake of a California Watch investigation and a scathing audit that found significant flaws in the state's oversight of public school construction.

Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, introduced SB 1271 last week. Under the bill, a task force would have until Jan. 1, 2014, to adopt new building standards and policies to bolster school seismic safety. The task force will 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.

The new standards are intended to address weaknesses in the state architect's office's oversight of seismic safety standards for K-12 public school construction. According to the bill, the task force will consider:

  • Penalties and other sanctions to compel compliance by school districts, contractors and other professionals
  • Stronger oversight of fire safety and accessibility standards
  • Improved evaluation of inspectors
  • How to increase transparency in the state architect’s office regarding enforcement actions

If the bill is passed, the task force will hold at least one public hearing to discuss and receive feedback about its work. The bill also requires the group to make recommendations on how to improve the Field Act, the state's seismic safety law that was passed one month after a devastating 1933 earthquake in Long Beach destroyed more than 200 school buildings in Southern California.

The Field Act gives seismic regulators the "police power of the state" to ensure safety standards are met during each phase of school construction, from early design to the first day of classes. A California Watch investigation last year found the state had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, 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 report slammed the state's oversight, calling it “neither effective nor comprehensive.” Corbett, who leads the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, is planning a March committee hearing to discuss the state architect's office and audit findings, an aide said.

"The audit made clear that the Division of the State Architect has failed to do its job to ensure all new public school facilities are meeting seismic safety standards,” Corbett said in a statement released yesterday. "That is a cause for great concern, in a state known for earthquakes. We must do everything necessary to protect California’s school children and ensure they spend their days in seismically safe facilities."

Representatives for Gov. Jerry Brown and the state architect's office declined to comment on Corbett's bill.

Kurt Cooknick, director of regulation and practice for the American Institute of Architects' California Council, said he couldn't comment because he had not seen the bill. The architects group, which lobbies legislators and the governor on architectural issues, has been closely aligned with the state architect's office for decades and plays a key role in tapping leaders for the enforcement office. Cooknick said his group would review the bill with its members on March 30.

In December, Brown appointed Chester "Chet" Widom to be the new state architect. Widom, who started the job in January, has said the issues raised by California Watch and the audit are a "high priority" for him.

More than 16,000 school projects don't meet Field Act standards, and at least 59,000 more have yet to be fully reviewed by the state architect’s office. Roughly 42,000 students attend schools with unresolved safety issues, California Watch has found.

The state architect's office is undergoing a second review by the state auditor. That review is expected to be completed later this year.

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