Today, after trying for more than two years to get regulators to listen to his concerns about seismic hazards at Pescadero High School, Bryan Burns will get his chance to speak to a statewide audience.
When he got an e-mail confirmation he was one of several tapped to testify in front of a state Senate committee examining school seismic safety, emotion welled up inside the 45-year-old father of two. Burns and friend Jeff Gananian's probe of construction problems at the La Honda-Pescadero school district had largely been ignored by state officials – until now.
"It's been two and a half years of fighting to get to the truth," Burns said, fighting back tears. "I felt a great deal of honor to be able to tell my story. Somebody finally wanted to listen."
Burns and at least three panels of witnesses are slated to talk about seismic safety in schools, hospitals and other structures at 11:30 a.m. today in front of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery.
The hearing was scheduled in response to a California Watch investigation, On Shaky Ground, that found thousands of public school projects failed to meet the state's safety requirements. Hundreds of building inspectors missed safety defects or falsified reports – and were rewarded with more work; and the state has made it all but impossible for schools to get money to fix seismically unsafe buildings.
Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, chairwoman of the committee, said she was shocked by the stories and vowed to ask tough questions to understand why seismic regulations weren't being enforced.
Among those slated to testify are Howard "Chip" Smith, who has been serving as state architect since August; Scott Harvey, acting director of the Department of General Services; seismologist Dr. Mary Lou Zoback; and Tom Duffy, legislative director for the Coalition for Adequate School Housing.
Burns, who lives across the street from Pescadero High School, first became alerted to school construction problems in August 2008 when his son told him of electrical wiring hanging from the ceilings and bathrooms in disrepair. A day later, Burns discovered roof renovation work to the high school's gym taking place without any inspection.
A subsequent phone call Burns made to the state architect's office revealed that the state employee responsible for oversight didn't even know where the school was located. Months later, the state rejected safety certification for the project but took no other action.
On Friday, less than 24 hours after getting his Senate e-mail, Burns got a call from two supervisors at the Oakland office of the Division of the State Architect. The supervisors wanted to know more about what Burns knew about the roof job. They also told him that the original building plans were missing from state files and wanted his help to track down documents from the school district.
Burns said he called Oakland regional manager Jim Hackett to learn more.
"He said he has only been manager for four months and wanted to know what was going on," Burns said. "But when he said 'I hope we're on the same side next week,' I knew he must had found out about me going to the hearing."
Friday's phone call to Burns is one of many taking place across the state, as the state architect's office has intensified its efforts to ferret out possible safety problems at schools. Earlier this month, the office sent letters to school districts warning them of potentially unsafe construction projects at their campuses.
An April 6 letter to Newman-Crows Landing Unified, for example, warned school officials that stadium bleachers and a press box built in 1994 may have deficient work, according to WestsideConnect.com, the website for Central Valley papers The West Side Index and Gustine Press-Standard.
According to the story, District Superintendent Rick Fauss was surprised by the letter and said he won't allow anyone to use the press box until it's safe: