Deanne Fitzmaurice/California WatchState regulators testify at a Senate committee hearing on earthquake safety in Sacramento.
State regulators will loosen the criteria for schools to access millions in unspent seismic repair funds and will require building inspectors to reveal whether they have been convicted of a crime before taking the state's certification test, officials said today.
Scott Harvey, acting chief of the Department of General Services, said the agency has sent letters to school superintendents alerting them to campus buildings that have been red-flagged with safety defects. The agency is promising to speed the process for certifying school projects under the Field Act seismic safety law.
"Can the state do a better job? Absolutely. There’s more that can be done," Harvey told Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro, at a legislative hearing today. "This discussion can allow for better public policy, so that we can give parents better certainty that our schools are safe."
The hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery was scheduled in response to a California Watch investigation this month. The "On Shaky Ground" series revealed that the Division of the State Architect had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act, California's landmark earthquake safety law for public schools.
The series revealed how the Schwarzenegger administration had made it virtually impossible to access a pot of money set aside for urgent seismic repairs on more than 7,500 school buildings.
The stories also detailed widespread problems in the way school building inspectors operate, including nearly 200 inspectors who received negative performance evaluations but continued to land government contracts. In one case, California Watch found the state architect's office had approved a construction inspector to work on school building projects even though he had a felony conviction in a construction safety-related case and had been kicked out of the city of Los Angeles inspector program.
Corbett, who chairs the committee, listened to testimony from more than a dozen speakers regarding seismic safety in public schools. She heard calls for reform from parents, seismic safety advocates and construction industry groups.
Bryan Burns, a parent whose probe of construction problems at the La Honda-Pescadero school district had largely been ignored by state officials until now, testified that the state architect's office was a "loose-run" organization with "sloppy" recordkeeping.
"It's an organization that doesn’t need to be shut down, but it needs to clearly be reprimanded and it needs to be reorganized," Burns said.
Former state architect David Thorman said he was concerned about an unknown number of school buildings that have been built illegally, without required state oversight – including some cases where school districts willfully avoided regulators.
"We have no idea what their condition is," Thorman said.
The actions announced at the hearing were the "low-hanging fruit" – changes regulators could implement immediately, said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Department of General Services.
"We're continuing to look internally at what changes we can make and we have asked DSA (the Division of the State Architect) to critically examine its processes," Lamoureux said.
Harvey said a subcommittee of the State Allocation Board, which controls funding for school districts, aims to deliver to the board in May recommendations for how to "liberalize" the standards required for districts to tap unspent funds for seismic upgrades.
Five years ago, voters approved nearly $200 million in bond funds for seismic repairs at thousands of school building across the state. The money was carved out of a $10 billion bond for school construction. But because of the state's rigid rules, only two schools have received any funds.
So few schools have qualified because the state set an extremely high standard – a level of ground-shaking intensity predicted to occur under schools that was greater than even the Loma Prieta or Northridge earthquakes.
One potential fix would be to incrementally lower the ground-shaking intensity thresholdto enable more buildings to qualify for the money. Another solution would fund only the most crucial seismic-strengthening needs, allowing schools to shore up their worst buildings over the summer when children are on vacation.
A third option, first discussed at the subcommittee's meeting April 12, would require school districts to have a structural engineer certify that a building is at risk to be eligible for funds, Harvey said.
Meanwhile, the state has identified 21 additional school building projects that are eligible for the seismic repair funding, said Lisa Silverman, acting executive officer of the Office of Public School Construction. Those projects could draw down as much as $100 million of the remaining funds, she said. Even with the additional school building projects the state recently identified, only about 50 buildings statewide on the list of 7,500 have met the strict requirements.
Harvey also said that inspectors who apply to take the state certification test to monitor school construction will now have to reveal if they have been convicted of a felony or if their license had been revoked or suspended in the past. The state architect's office oversees a special network of about 1,500 inspectors trained in the Field Act.
Acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith had been scheduled to testify and sat on the panel next to Harvey, but he did not speak at the hearing.
Both Thorman and Skip Daum, legislative advocate for the California Coalition of Professional Construction Inspectors, urged the state architect's office to stop allowing school districts to occupy buildings before they are certified as safe.
Corbett said she thought the hearing was "outstanding."
"We had real people who had encountered these problems with our system of making schools safe," Corbett said. "I'm going to have more meetings with the Department of General Services and the Division of the State Architect. I think they've gotten a very clear message, and I can tell they are on the road to making changes."
Lawmakers also expressed concern that some hospitals may seek extensions on making seismic repairs but fail to retrofit their potentially dangerous buildings. Testimony focused on bills signed this month by Gov. Jerry Brown that gives the state’s riskiest hospital buildings up to seven more years to retrofit, pushing forward 2013 and 2015 deadlines.
The state hospital building authority will have the power to grant limited extensions on a case-by-case basis, evaluating the hospital’s structural stability as well as its financial ability to make the changes.
California Watch reported last year that the state had the ability to determine a “collapse risk” score for each hospital building but had done so for only about 90 of 660 high-risk buildings.
During the hearing, Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development facilities deputy director Paul Coleman testified that this would be the first hospital seismic safety law that would require collapse-risk assessments before extensions are granted.
State Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, who voted in favor of the extension law, pressed Coleman during the hearing to alert lawmakers about hospitals that seek extensions but perform no retrofits.
“I’m going to look at the hospitals that aren’t doing a darn thing,” Alquist said. “We as lawmakers really need to know which hospitals fall into that category.”
California Watch reporter Christina Jewett contributed to this report.