Legislators voted yesterday to fast-track an audit of the office that oversees public school construction after a recent California Watch investigation found it had routinely failed to enforce earthquake safety laws.
During a morning hearing, members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously approved an investigation of the Division of the State Architect and ordered the state auditor's office to make the review its highest priority.
State Auditor Elaine Howle pledged to fully staff a two-part review of the state architect's office, which she said would take place "as soon as possible."
Howle said the immediate focus would be to determine whether the office allowed the construction of unsafe school structures. That part of the review will also examine how the regulatory agency evaluates the skills of the staff charged with construction oversight.
Howle said she was confident the first phase could be completed within six months and pledged to add more staff if needed. Howle's spokeswoman, Margarita Fernández, said up to six reviewers could make up the initial audit team.
The second part of the audit will examine the state architect's review of building plans and will likely begin in mid-2012. The entire study may cost more than $510,000, according to an estimate provided at the hearing. No timetable was finalized yesterday, but the review could begin later this month.
Gary Link, legislative director of the Department of General Services, which oversees the state architect's office, told the committee the office would fully cooperate with the audit.
"We welcome the audit and look forward to working professionally with the state auditor," Link said.
The audit request is the latest state response to the findings of California Watch's 19-month investigation, On Shaky Ground.
The series found state regulators had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, California's earthquake safety law for public schools. That failure allowed children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. At least 20,000 projects – from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms – were completed without receiving a final Field Act certification.
The state had also made it virtually impossible for school districts to access a pot of money set aside for urgent seismic repairs on more than 7,500 school buildings that have been listed for nearly a decade as potentially unsafe, records and interviews show.
At last month's hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, state officials pledged to loosen the criteria for schools to access millions in unspent seismic repair funds.
Yesterday's hearing stemmed from a request sent on April 25 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg; Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett; Sens. Alan Lowenthal, Loni Hancock and Michael Rubio; and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley. The letter sent to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee stated in part:
Recent investigative reports conducted by California Watch indicate that there are possible irregularities in the (state architect's) construction oversight and project closeout processes of school site construction that may not follow the protections put in law to ensure the safe construction of schools. ...
Attached please find a list of questions defining the scope of the two phases of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee audit request to determine whether (state architect) resources are being used efficiently, effectively and economically to ensure the construction of safe school facilities.
Lowenthal, who presented the request yesterday with Corbett, said that California taxpayers have a multibillion-dollar investment in schools and therefore a right to expect them to be safe.
“There are specific safeguards in law that are intended to insure the safety of our school buildings," he said. "It is of great concern to learn that some of these laws may be improperly administered. The state taxpayers have invested over $35 billion in school construction over the past decade and expect no less than safe buildings. Hopefully this state audit will help shed light on the problems in the current system so they can be addressed."