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Thousands of records merged to create seismic safety database

Michael Corey/California Watch

California Watch set out to build for the public an interactive database of schools located in seismic hazard zones. We also wanted to map all the public K-12 schools in the state and those without seismic-safety certification under the Field Act, the state’s building standards for school construction.

We started by obtaining digitized maps from the California Geological Survey, which tracks state-designated fault zones. The state law that defines these fault zones was enacted in 1972, a year after the devastating Sylmar earthquake in the San Fernando Valley. The law, known as the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act, restricts most construction within these seismic zones.

Under the law, high-occupancy buildings – such as schools, hospitals and commercial projects – must be set back from an active fault, generally at least 50 feet. To the state, an active fault is defined as one with evidence of earth movement within the past 11,000 years. Since June 1998, sellers of real estate must disclose to prospective buyers whether their property is within such a zone.

The state keeps the maps in quadrants – more than 700 of them. We stitched together each quadrant to cover the entire state. After overlaying about 10,000 public schools tracked by the California Department of Education, we found about 90 schools that appeared to be located within these active fault zones.

The California Geological Survey also maps landslide and liquefaction hazard zones – areas of the state that have more loosely compacted soil. Construction in these zones also must conform to stricter safety standards. Although confined to the Bay Area and parts of Southern California, these hazard maps were added to our analysis as well – about 100 separate maps.

Then we examined U.S. Geological Survey data of earthquake faults in California. The data includes faults that are believed to have caused earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.0.

The database of public schools provided by the California Department of Education included latitude and longitude points, which made mapping possible. California Watch had to identify and add mapping coordinates for some of these schools. We also cleaned up the data a bit, moving schools apparently located in the wrong city or county.

Where possible, California Watch checked schools falling inside hazard zones, attempting to verify the location of the school based on the satellite imagery and street-view imagery available in Google Maps. If we could see the right street name and ball fields, we felt good about the school location. If we felt further investigation was needed, we used Google Street View to get a glimpse of the school sign or distinguishing characteristics.

The new database allowed us to look for schools inside seismic zones in a way that previously could not be done. However, the data was not without its limitations. The latitude and longitude coordinates do not cover the entire footprint of a school. So we added a quarter-mile radius around each plot point.

As reporters dug through documents and conducted interviews, they found a couple of important lists pertaining to the safety of school construction projects that we ultimately added to our growing database.

In 1999, the state Legislature approved AB 300, requiring the Department of General Services to conduct a “collapse risk” inventory of the state’s K-12 school buildings. The report, released in 2002, concluded that 9,659 school buildings were vulnerable. Of those buildings, 7,537 were considered “likely not to perform well” in future earthquakes and needed further seismic evaluation.

In 2008, the Division of the State Architect began updating the list. When California Watch obtained the list in October 2010, it contained 10,719 records. Further reporting indicated that most of these buildings had not received needed repairs.

Locating vulnerable schools

The data provided by the state architect’s office had major problems and inaccuracies. While it included a district and school name, it did not provide an address, and the school name often was an abbreviation for the actual name. For example, the list contains an entry for “Bryant” in the Fresno Unified School District, but the district currently does not have a school with Bryant in the name.

In the Pacific Grove Unified School District, one of the entries lists “Pacific Grove” as the school name. Was that Pacific Grove High School or Pacific Grove Adult Education? A review of state records and attempts to contact the district proved fruitless. Unable to determine which Pacific Grove school was actually on the AB 300 list, we decided to remove it from our database.

In situations in which the school names matched closely, we were able to tie the building to the right school. For example, an entry refers to “Palmdale” in the Palmdale School District. The only school in the district with Palmdale in the name is Palmdale Learning Plaza. We considered that a match.

The list also contained entries that referred to “various” schools and administrative buildings. These lacked identifying information of any kind, so they could not be tied to a specific campus. Community colleges are outside of the scope of this project, so they were also left out.

We put a team of researchers together to check other sources and call school districts to sort out as many of these inconsistencies as we could. In many cases, we were able to get answers. But in hundreds of cases, we could not confirm the buildings. So these buildings were left out of the database. Out of 10,719 buildings, we could not match 4,600 of them to schools sites.

Furthermore, despite the state’s efforts to update the data since 2008, many reports we received from school districts contradicted state data. Some districts said the buildings no longer existed, that they could not identify the buildings in question, or they contended that the necessary repairs had been completed.

Through additional reporting, we identified a better list of AB 300 buildings maintained by the Los Angeles Unified School District, so we were able to use that list instead of the state’s list.

We did our best to deal with the ambiguity in the data, and we expect the proper identification of these buildings to be an ongoing process, with feedback coming from readers and through additional reporting.

Identifying uncertified projects

U.S. Geological SurveyThe Long Beach earthquake on March 10, 1933, left gaping cracks in a road between Seal Beach and the Bolsa Chica Gun Club.

Additionally, thousands of school construction projects have failed to receive Field Act certification. The Field Act became law within a month of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and mandated that all K-12 school and community college projects be designed and built to strict standards. For our project, we only focused on K-12 schools. There are at least 20,000 uncertified school projects identified in state records – and the actual number may be tens of thousands higher.

About 1,400 of these projects have been found to have safety concerns that arose during construction. These are so-called “Letter 4” projects – the highest level of warning from the state architect’s office.

When a project nears completion, the state architect’s office is supposed to issue a letter certifying that the construction meets state safety guidelines. California Watch decided to include all uncertified projects that were ever given a “Letter 4.” The state is supposed to issue these letters when a project has known, unresolved safety issues in construction.

During the course of our reporting, we came across projects that had been changed to other letters (1, 2 or 3). Despite these upgrades by the state architect’s office, some of these projects nevertheless appeared to have unresolved questions about construction defects.

As a result, we believed it was important to include these projects in our database, even if they were not currently listed among those with a Letter 4. Many of these projects had their status changed even though the state did not actually perform a site visit to view the construction project. Complicating matters was the fact that each time we requested data on Letter 4 projects, the state gave us a different list. We still have not been able to obtain a complete, accurate report.

California Watch researchers went through these lists, trying to identify the buildings and schools. In some cases, the lists identified the wrong school. In other cases, projects that were uncertified did not list a specific campus or simply referred to the projects as “various.” There was no way to identify these campuses. Other times, the projects were too old to be in the state’s online database, so we used the state’s paper records. But these were not always accurate either, listing an old school name or an address that could not be tied to a current school.

We did our best to correctly connect buildings and projects back to school campuses. Of the nearly 1,400 Letter 4 projects, we were able to tie 785 of them to an existing school. About 300 of these were excluded because the project site was listed as “various.”

So how many of California’s roughly 10,000 public schools have uncertified projects? The state has no way of telling the public. But California Watch took steps to sample the data to come up with a conservative number.

Beginning with a list of 19,931 school construction projects that were deemed uncertified by state inspectors, California Watch developed a list of 8,926 distinct schools that were home to at least one uncertified project. However, many of the school names entered by inspectors were misspelled, assigned to the wrong district or otherwise did not appear to correspond to existing schools. Still other records corresponded to buildings at community colleges or portable classrooms that could not be matched to an existing K-12 school.

To estimate how many schools from the list of uncertified projects corresponded clearly to existing schools, California Watch extracted a random sample of 370 schools and checked them by hand against a master list of active schools provided by the state Department of Education. The sample was calculated with a confidence level of 95 percent and a confidence interval of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

We found that 25 percent of the schools listed in inspection records could not be matched directly to the Department of Education's master list. That number was rounded to the upper bound of the margin of error, 30 percent, and used to calculate a conservative estimate of the number of schools in California that had at least one uncertified project – 6,337.

Because many inspected schools could not be verified due to sloppy recordkeeping and other technicalities, the number of schools with at least one uncertified project is likely higher than the estimate California Watch printed in the story.

Our interactive database was not the only big undertaking on the data front. We also built our own databases of inspector performance.

California Watch reviewed about 17,000 inspector-rating forms for nearly 1,800 inspectors over three decades. We spent weeks entering the information on those forms into a spreadsheet and ended up with 11,000 lines of data. Building this database allowed us to identify nearly 300 inspectors who received one or more “unsatisfactory” or “needs improvement”ratings. The negative marks were for violations such as missing key safety defects, being absent on the job or failing to file required reports. Yet most of these inspectors were allowed to continue monitoring school construction projects, records show. Forty-three percent of the rating forms were left blank because field engineers stated they had “insufficient contact” with the inspector.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Joanna Lin.

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