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Primer helps public, journalists report seismic story

The California Watch “On Shaky Ground” project on seismic safety outlines a series of failures by state regulators, school officials and inspectors in enforcing the Field Act. After reading these stories, reporters at other media outlets, parents or local activists may want to dig deeper into their local schools. This primer prepared by the California Watch staff is designed to help guide you through the steps.

At least 20,000 school building projects have failed to receive the required Field Act safety certification. A spreadsheet of those projects as of October 2010 can be found here. About 9,659 buildings have been listed for nearly a decade on the state’s AB 300 list of potentially hazardous school buildings in need of a detailed structural evaluation. Download the state's list, as well as a detailed review done by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

This primer includes a systematic guide to reporting a local angle on this story.

STEP ONE / Earthquake hazard zones

Search the California Watch interactive database to see the seismic safety status of your county or counties. Note how many schools fall within the three hazard zones, how many are on the AB 300 list and how many are uncertified. Create a list of schools in hazard zones to focus your reporting.

You might want to tell readers simply which schools are in liquefaction zones, landslide zones and Alquist-Priolo hazard zones. If you have schools that are in these hazard zones and are on the AB 300 list or the uncertified list, that will help focus the reporting.

STEP TWO / AB 300 schools

Look at the spreadsheet of school projects on the AB 300 list. Sort them by district, then create a list of school construction projects to target. Keep in mind that the original list was created in 2002. The Division of the State Architect has been updating it since 2008. Changes may have been made since then. Repairs could have occurred, the building could have been demolished, the school may have been renamed, or the school may have been folded into another district. The list is messy; this story was built around an agency that has struggled to maintain good records.

Of the original 9,659 buildings on the AB 300 list, about 7,500 were deemed by the state as potentially hazardous and in need of a detailed structural evaluation. These buildings are labeled Category 2 in the interactive and on our downloadable spreadsheet.

Approach the facilities manager at your district with whatever you have found. Take the full AB 300 spreadsheet with you; the facilities manager or district official may require additional information from that sheet to search for project documents. Here are some possible questions:

  • Can you tell me what, if anything, has been done about making seismic upgrades to these buildings since the AB 300 report was completed in 2002?
  • Has an in-depth seismic review been conducted by a licensed structural engineer? If so, ask your school officials to provide a copy of the report.
  • Are students and staff still using these buildings?
  • If unsafe conditions continue to exist, what can be done to address them?
  • What is the estimated cost of making seismic upgrades?

If school officials say they have resolved safety problems with buildings on the AB 300 list, reporters can request the following documentation:

  • The state architect’s office (DSA) application ID number for the project and/or the Office of Public School Construction (OPSC) number
  • The approval letter from the state architect’s office, which comes when plans are approved, and the certification letter that the work was completed according to Field Act standards
  • If you obtain these documents and are willing to share them, please e-mail us at seismic@californiawatch.org.

Key resource for steps two and three:

The Division of the State Architect’s public Tracker database can be invaluable.

For any given school construction project, you can find the status of a project and how much it cost, as well as the name of the architect, inspector, contractor and structural engineer.

Note: The Project Application Number is the state’s unique identifier for school construction projects. This is often the best tool for communicating with the state architect’s office and school districts about a specific project. Projects that are more recent will include a region code (01 for Oakland, 02 for Sacramento, 03 for Los Angeles and 04 for San Diego) plus a six-digit number. For example, 04-108433 is an uncertified project in the San Diego region. Older projects, like those on the AB 300 list, won’t necessarily have a region code and will have fewer than six digits.

STEP THREE / Letter 4

Because there are at least 20,000 school projects that are uncertified, chances are good your community will have uncertified schools. About 1,000 of these projects are listed with the highest warning from the Division of the State Architect – Letter 4. See the FAQ for an explanation of what the various letters mean.

You can find how many uncertified projects are in your area. But for further reporting, you might want to look at Letter 4 projects. Here are some possible questions:

  • Which buildings within the school lack Field Act certification?
  • Why hasn’t the project been certified?
  • If paperwork is missing, is there any way you can guarantee that necessary safety precautions were followed during construction?
  • Are these uncertified buildings in use by students and staff?
  • If school officials say their buildings are Field Act certified, the public can ask for a copy of the letter of certification from the Division of the State Architect. If you obtain this document and are willing to share it, please e-mail us at seismic@californiawatch.org.

IMPORTANT: If the district shows you a letter that an uncertified project has been revised to a Letter 3, 2 or 1, you may want to ask on what grounds the revised certification was given.

Also, keep in mind that California Watch received the list of school projects in October 2010 and things at the districts may have changed. Check the Division of the State Architect’s Tracker to get information about the current certification status.

STEP FOUR / Going deeper

If you have extra time, check the actual construction and inspection records to verify what school officials and the Division of the State Architect say about an uncertified project. To do this, you will need to request additional information from the state architect’s office or your school district. This would include all construction-related documents and e-mails. Many of these records are kept in Division of the State Architect district offices, including in Sacramento, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. Keep in mind that there are serious liability concerns – so a district official or state architect’s office official is unlikely to tell you that a building is dangerous.

Filed under: K–12, Public Safety

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