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State opens seismic retrofit fund to thousands of schools

Flickr photo by dmjarveyThe State Allocation Board voted to free up access to a $200 million seismic repair fund for public schools.

State officials voted yesterday to expand access to a $200 million fund created for urgent seismic repairs at California's public schools.

The move came in response to complaints that restrictive rules created by the Schwarzenegger administration had blocked the funds from thousands of schools.

The State Allocation Board, which controls funding for school repairs and construction, approved new rules that will allow almost all occupied buildings with the potential for catastrophic collapse to apply for a slice of the bond fund, which was approved by California voters in 2006.

The board's 6-2 decision comes on the heels of a California Watch investigation that found that the Schwarzenegger administration, which had worried about a rush on the limited pot of money, had severely limited the eligibility rules for schools to qualify.*

As a result, most of the $200 million fund has been unused.

Using a complicated formula, schools were previously required to prove their buildings were situated in areas that would experience an unusually high ground-shaking force during an earthquake – more intense than even the Northridge and Loma Prieta earthquakes. The rules effectively shut out most of the state from eligibility.

Although more than 7,000 school buildings are now potentially eligible for the funding, there is very little money to go around. The state has estimated it could cost $4.7 billion to fix all of the potentially vulnerable buildings.

About $4.5 million of the $199.5 million set aside for seismic retrofits has already been consumed by three projects at San Ramon Valley Unified and Piedmont Unified school districts. An additional project in West Contra Costa Unified School District has received preliminary approval and could receive about $14 million from the state.

That leaves less than $185 million for additional seismic retrofits. Assuming each project will cost at least half a million dollars, less than 400 buildings would be able to make use of the fund.

"We had a program in place that went into effect in 2006 and here we are in 2011 and we've had three projects qualify,” said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Danville, who voted in favor of lifting the funding restrictions.  

Schools would still need to meet certain requirements. Their buildings would have to be one of the 14 building types considered most vulnerable, under the new criteria. Those include unreinforced masonry and certain precast "tilt-up" structures – buildings with walls that are made at a manufacturing facility, transported to the job site and "tilted" from a horizontal to vertical position.

To qualify, a structural engineer and officials at the Division of the State Architect would have to deem the project unsafe. While the division would consider factors such as ground shaking, it would not be limited to a specific criteria. The State Allocation Board would then approve funding.

The state still needs to prioritize which schools can access the limited funds. Staff from the state architect's office will work to develop guidelines over the next few weeks.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, and Pedro Reyes, chairman of the board and chief deputy director for policy at the Department of Finance, opposed the decision. Scott Harvey, chief deputy director of the Department of General Services, abstained.

The Department of Finance strongly opposed the changes.

"You would not necessarily be addressing the most vulnerable facilities first," said Chris Ferguson, a representative for the department. "You would be addressing any facility that came forward with an engineering report regardless of the vulnerability."

Assemblywoman Buchanan responded, "Could you please explain to me how a school that engineers say is not safe to be occupied ... does not meet the most vulnerable qualification?"

The board did not approve a recommendation that would have made it possible for school districts to use some of the money for interim buildings to house students during construction.

After the 2006 bond measure was approved, the Schwarzenegger administration worried about how to categorize the buildings. Classifying too many buildings as “most vulnerable” would cause panic and lead to calls to close schools, officials worried.

The administration outlined its concerns in a May 1, 2007, “Governor’s Office Action Request” sent by the Department of General Services and the State and Consumer Services Agency. Their solution was a detailed formula that weighed the expected cost of repairs against the intensity of earthquakes predicted around those vulnerable schools.

Money would “drive the criteria,” according to the document. “The state will likely receive considerable criticism from school districts and their communities because some at-risk school buildings will not qualify for this funding.”

UPDATE: The board initially approved the restrictive rules in 2007 based on the recommendations received from the Division of State Architect and the Office of Public School Construction.


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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