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Thousands of students attending schools with unresolved safety issues

Mark Avery/California WatchHelen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles is on the state’s list of school projects with serious safety problems.

Helen Bernstein was supposed to be a new kind of high school – a project that would serve 2,100 students on a footprint of only 12.4 acres, with views of the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory. 

Work on the campus started in 2004 – part of a $20 billion building program launched by the Los Angeles Unified School District. But construction was troubled almost from the start.

Four years in, the state supervising structural engineer learned that more than 1,320 changes were made without the state’s approval. Engineers say some of those changes could weaken structures and put students at risk in an earthquake. 

In several cases, subcontractors for the general contractor, Tutor-Saliba Corp., had built over construction flaws – despite objections from school inspectors, records obtained by California Watch and interviews show. Before the work was hidden by plaster and cement, inspectors photographed missing anchors, damaged bolts, lopsided walls and crooked floor frames.

Yet neither the Los Angeles Unified School District nor the state stepped in to stop Tutor-Saliba or its subcontractors. Despite receiving thousands of non-compliance notices, including a list of uncorrected structural problems, school officials moved children, teachers and staff into the buildings three years ago. 

The conditions at Helen Bernstein High School illustrate a festering problem in scores of California schools. Bernstein and 85 other projects – including seven projects at one Santa Barbara County school district – were flagged by state structural engineers for serious safety issues. 

And yet, local school districts have allowed more than 42,000 students to attend these schools without resolving many of the safety concerns, records and interviews show.

Tim Buresh, former chief operating officer for the school district and a former vice president of Tutor Perini Corp., Tutor-Saliba’s parent company, said the district and contractor agreed to keep the project moving despite the notices. 

“If you stopped the work every time you found a problem, when it was taking many months for (the architect) to resolve any one issue, you would simply not be able to get it done,” said Buresh, who was interviewed this month about his role. He went to work on California’s high-speed rail initiative in June.

Construction defects include ceiling braces inside the library and student dining area that a state field engineer said could be too weak to withstand shaking in an earthquake and large lighting fixtures in the practice gym that the inspector was unable to thoroughly review. These problems still have not been fixed.

“These are serious issues,” said Dan Shapiro, a structural engineer and former Seismic Safety Commission member who reviewed building plans, construction photos and inspection reports regarding Helen Bernstein for California Watch.

Kelly Schmader, Los Angeles Unified’s chief facilities executive, acknowledged mistakes were made.

“This definitely is not one of our proudest moments at Helen Bernstein High School,” he said. “This project has been a struggle for us.” 

In April, California Watch identified thousands of schools across the state that had failed to meet the state’s rigorous seismic safety standards. A report by the state auditor released this month confirmed those findings, noting that weak oversight has potentially put children at risk. This group of 86 projects has been designated by the state as posing the greatest potential risk to students and teachers. 

At these sites, which cost more than $300 million to build, regulators from the Division of the State Architect and local school district administrators were told of illegal work or dangerous shortcuts in time to intervene, records and interviews show. Instead, supervisors ignored the warnings and charged ahead.

State regulators have pledged to keep problems at these 86 projects on the radar until they are resolved, although they insist that none of the projects pose an imminent threat to children.

The Division of the State Architect, which oversees public school construction, is now supposed to send periodic notifications to these districts about any remaining building issues, according to Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, the parent agency of the state architect's office. In most cases, repeated notifications had not been sent to school districts in the past.

More than a third of the 86 projects are in seismically active Los Angeles County, where problems include walls that were not properly connected to the foundations. Nearly half of the building projects have remained on the state’s uncertified school list for 10 years or longer, according to state records.

In one case, the state architect’s office sent a letter to the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District in Stanislaus County saying the concrete columns supporting the press box at Orestimba High School appeared to be overstressed. The letter, sent in 1994, requested documentation showing the press box was safe. The state architect’s office has no record that the district ever responded.

After the California Watch series in April, the state architect’s office sent another letter reminding Newman-Crows Landing of its safety issues. As a result, the district’s superintendent, Ed Felt, closed the press box until the district could verify that it meets safety standards.

Inexperienced contractor accused of fraud

In early 2000, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District in Santa Barbara County embarked on a $120 million construction program. School officials planned about 20 projects, including more than 50 new buildings, to relieve their crowded campuses. The area is seismically active, with several faults nearby.

In contrast to a large district like Los Angeles Unified, Santa Maria-Bonita had not built a new school in more than a decade when it started its massive building program. The district tapped TurnKey Schools of America, a startup contractor with little experience building schools. The responsibility for day-to-day oversight of TurnKey’s work was delegated to two district employees who also had limited construction expertise. 

A decade later, documents and grand jury testimony show how allegations of fraud, secrecy and a disregard for safety requirements landed the district at the top of the state’s list of most problematic projects.

The district now has seven schools the state has designated as among those with the most serious defects, more than any other district in California. State and district documents show school officials, including the current assistant superintendent for business services and current coordinator of maintenance and operations, knew about numerous structural safety problems, yet thousands of children have occupied the dangerous buildings since 2004. 

In 2005, TurnKey was forced into bankruptcy after subcontractors complained about not getting paid. 

Shortly afterward, the California attorney general’s office launched an investigation of TurnKey. In April 2008, a grand jury indicted three construction company executives and Cynthia Lynn Clark, the district’s former assistant superintendent of business services, who was in charge of the project, on 74 felony counts alleging they misappropriated $3.6 million in school construction money.

According to grand jury testimony, TurnKey executives diverted the district’s money to lease expensive cars, throw parties, buy artwork and pay themselves exorbitant cash bonuses. When the company began to run short of cash, it submitted false invoices to the district. Prosecutors have accused Clark of paying invoices she knew were fraudulent because she had plans to work for TurnKey after she left the district. 

The trial for Clark and the three TurnKey executives is scheduled to start in January. The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Clark's attorney said she followed directives from her supervisor and the school board.

Construction issues escaped public scrutiny

The fraud allegations were reported by local media. But the extent of the construction shortcomings had not been reported until California Watch began examining them. When TurnKey went out of business, it left Santa Maria-Bonita with hundreds of construction problems.

Poorly welded steel and undersized reinforcements weakened every gymnasium roof, records show. Testing at those same gyms found shear walls unable to absorb and transfer earthquake forces because they were improperly nailed to studs. Anchor bolts that secure walls to the foundation were loose and difficult to fix because they were buried beneath the gymnasium, according to inspection reports. 

John A. Martin & Associates, a structural engineering firm hired by the district to investigate problems, warned in 2009 that structural frames in every TurnKey building were too weak to resist an earthquake, a defect affecting buildings at more than a dozen schools. Those buildings included two-story classroom buildings at Arellanes Junior High, El Camino Junior High, Tommie Kunst Junior High and Fesler Junior High schools. 

“We believe these conditions to be substandard, and may pose a potential life-safety risk to students and staff in or around these structures,” wrote Melissa Hazlett, a structural engineer with John A. Martin & Associates.

In the rush to complete construction, TurnKey executives ignored inspectors’ warnings about shoddy work. Jessica Needham, who was TurnKey’s architect and part owner of the building firm, told grand jurors that TurnKey employees faked her signature and submitted plans for state approval that she never saw. 

Needham said she knew shoddy construction was rampant at the district, but company founder and CEO Harry Clark ordered her to ignore it. In one meeting, an angry Clark forbade Morley from documenting any problems, she told grand jurors.

“He didn’t want to hear about any more mistakes in the construction at all,” Needham testified. “Harry said that it was ‘taking too much money, too much time.’ ”

Inspector marked absent

TurnKey also took advantage of regulatory blind spots. The firm supplied pre-fabricated buildings to the school district. There are no state quality-control standards for plants that manufacture those buildings. 

Fred Reyes, an inspector hired by the district to oversee work at the plant, was frequently absent, according to interviews and documents filed with the state. 

A state regulator who went to the plant noticed workers installing older wiring in the buildings, according to his report. The regulator noted that 42 of 86 building sections were completed. Reyes was absent the entire visit, the report says.

John Coyle, an inspector who worked at Arellanes Junior High, said he initially became suspicious of Reyes’ inspections after noticing a number of poor welds he thought should have been caught at the plant.

“I went out to the plant,” Coyle said. “Work was being done, but Reyes wasn’t there.”

After receiving complaints from another inspector, a state regulator rejected Reyes’ final reports attesting that all the work had been done correctly. 

Reyes, in an interview with California Watch, said he could not recall his work at TurnKey. He said the district raised only one structural concern – a crucial connection at the gymnasium – which he claims was not his responsibility. 

In 2006, the school district sued the inspection firm that employed Reyes, All American Inspection, after discovering numerous pieces of substandard steel welding and poorly built wood frames that Reyes had vouched for. 

The firm settled the case by paying the district $325,000 without admitting wrongdoing. Reyes is still working as a school construction inspector in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The state architect’s office said it has not been able to determine whether Reyes has been disciplined. All American is also still an active inspection firm eligible to do business with school districts.

District officials don’t halt construction

At several key moments during construction, Santa Maria-Bonita district officials were warned that its building contractor was making mistakes but did not require fixes.

Cynthia Clark, the former assistant superintendent who was later indicted, and Ed Fassiotto, coordinator of maintenance and operations, ignored roughly 200 inspector citations. Inspectors flagged dangerous contractor shortcuts, improper structural changes, poor steel welding and unapproved foundations, according to state construction files and interviews with project inspectors.

Roger Smith, an inspector who worked at multiple projects for Santa Maria-Bonita, said he urged Clark to shut down construction. 

“I begged her not to let them pour the first set of foundations at Liberty (Elementary) … because there were no approved drawings,” Smith said in an interview. “She goes, ‘I want these projects finished. I want the kids in the schools.’ ”

Through her attorney, Clark said she does not recall the conversation with Smith. She said she was diligent in getting deviations resolved and believed Needham was taking steps to correct them.  

During an interview in 2005 conducted as part of an internal district investigation, Clark admitted that she knew many of the project's problems stemmed from “poor to non-existent drawings.” Clark said she knew that TurnKey’s construction managers were “winging it and directing changes without … approval” and that the company was substituting “cheaper material” than what was called for in the contract. 

The district investigation report stated: “Despite all of TurnKey’s problems, however, she never demanded corrective action or took independent action to monitor or audit TurnKey: nor did she tell anyone who might have directed such actions.”

Fassiotto, who still works as the district’s maintenance and operations coordinator, told the grand jury that TurnKey often delivered buildings from its plant that required repairs. He said he also signed documents that allowed TurnKey to get paid for work it had not done – in some cases, over the protest of inspectors.

“I knew it was not right, and – but the overriding issue at the time was to get the schools open,” Fassiotto testified. “And I really can’t say that I was going to lie down in front of a truck to stop this, but I do know that it was wrong.”

State refuses to step in

Frustrated over the inability to get district officials to stop TurnKey’s work, project inspectors met with Shaf Ullah, the Division of the State Architect’s former regional director in Los Angeles, urging him to stop TurnKey’s construction.

Ullah said no. Although the state architect’s office was given the authority to halt faulty work several years earlier, an internal employee survey conducted in 2006 noted unspecified “political pressure” for the lack of stop work orders.

“At that point, all of us realized we were out in the cold,” Smith said, “that nobody was going to help us.” 

The audit of the state architect’s office released this month found that regulators were failing to use their stop work authority even when they knew about unsafe conditions.

The district canceled a face-to-face interview with California Watch and did not respond to multiple attempts to reschedule. However, in an e-mailed statement, Superintendent Phil Alvarado maintains that district buildings are safe. He also provided a letter from John A. Martin saying poorly constructed frames in some buildings needed repair but do not pose “an immediate life safety risk.” 

Shapiro, the engineer who reviewed documents for California Watch, said Martin’s conclusions seemed like a gamble.

“When they say ‘immediate risk,’ I never know exactly what they mean,” Shapiro said. “I guess the next earthquake might be smaller and nothing terrible would happen. But if it isn’t up to code and would perhaps collapse in a large earthquake, it’s not safe.”

Bill Korn, a state-certified inspector who worked on the Santa Maria-Bonita projects, doubts the district will ever be able to certify the school buildings are safe because many of the building defects are now encased in concrete.

“We’ve got to tear these buildings down and start over or pretty damn close to it,” he said. “To find some of these deviation notices we’re talking about, you’re talking about tearing the building apart.”

Parents left in the dark

Santa Maria-Bonita’s construction problems were kept quiet. District officials did not tell parents or discuss problems at public meetings. 

David Riloquio, a former district school board member who was elected shortly after TurnKey went bankrupt, said he could not recall ever being told about structural problems with the buildings. Riloquio was president of the board from 2008 to 2009, when John A. Martin & Associates, the structural engineering firm, identified several structural concerns at TurnKey buildings. 

Several other board members did not respond to a request for comment. 

In addition to its position as lead contractor on Santa Maria-Bonita’s $120 million construction program, TurnKey, which was founded in 1998, received almost $93 million in contracts for school construction projects at more than a dozen school districts through 2005.

The district has not addressed at least four major structural problems uncovered by John A. Martin & Associates. These include the structural frames at every TurnKey building, the anchors at the gymnasiums, the connections between the first and second floor of the two-story classrooms and the elevators. The district contends it has repaired unsafe stairwells and the walls and roof at the gymnasiums. The state architect’s office approved the gym remedial plan for one site, but rejected the proposed fixes at four others.

“Who loses here?” said Smith, the project inspector. “The people who lose are between 6 and 12 years old.”

Chaotic oversight, unapproved changes

About 160 miles south of Santa Maria, Los Angeles Unified School District touted Helen Bernstein High School as a new landmark for Hollywood. When it opened in 2008, it was one of 74 new schools completed as part of the district's multibillion-dollar construction program.

By the time it was built, the project was $60 million over budget and two years behind schedule. Days after the school opened, 18,500 construction tasks had not been completed, according to a final inspection report submitted to the state and the district. 

The tasks ranged from minor items, such as exit signs that had not been installed, to serious structural issues, including ceilings above the library and student dining area that were not properly braced to withstand shaking in an earthquake.

In both the library and dining areas, places that are often teeming with schoolchildren, the contractor connected braces in the wrong spots, records show. That created potential structural weaknesses, according to the state field engineer.

At one point, the inspector’s log included 3,800 deviations from state building plans. Half of those deviations were structural. The district acknowledged it is still grappling with about 1,000 changes that have not been vetted by the state. In at least six cases, the deviations were buried behind plaster and concrete and would be difficult, if not impossible, to correct. 

District oversight of the project was chaotic. Before buildings were occupied, five different project managers were brought in. Each one had to deal with hundreds of deviations that were not resolved by his predecessor. 

The district relied on outside contractors to manage construction. Most had little experience with the unique requirements of California’s school building code, and some later sought jobs with the contractors they were expected to manage. There also was tremendous pressure to keep construction moving to avoid increased costs. 

Inspectors say system broke down

Former inspectors and project managers said the district’s oversight system broke down. Walter Jones, who recently retired from Los Angeles Unified after working as a supervising inspector for more than two decades, said: “They saw any inspector writing up a deviation notice as getting in the way. It’s not asking too much to get the job that you’re paying for.”

State regulators also expressed concern about the contractor’s work. During construction, a state field engineer wrote that the contractor was closing up the structural framing with architectural finishes despite unresolved problems. 

“If any accident occurs in the future (that happens in those areas which were not constructed per DSA approved documents), who will be liable for that?” James Lin, the field engineer, wrote

Interviews and district documents reviewed by California Watch describe a battle between the general contractor, Tutor-Saliba, and district construction inspectors who were repeatedly documenting instances in which the firm and its subcontractors illegally built over unapproved work. 

Steve Sharr, the district’s former regional director of new construction, wrote in a December 2005 survey of senior project executives: “We’ve lost sight of the strategic goals as a consequence of trying to put out fires on a day-to-day basis. … (The contractor) continues to be adversarial and lacks a QC (quality control) focus and implementation.”

Mark Avery/California WatchDuring construction of Helen Bernstein High School, inspectors flagged structural problems at the continuation school on campus.

The lead inspector, Mike Rosenberg, cited Tutor-Saliba and its subcontractor more than 15 times for building over work despite deficiencies. 

Jack Frost, executive vice president at Tutor-Saliba, said in an interview that every deviation was resolved to Los Angeles Unified’s satisfaction or the company would not have been paid. 

Curtis Olsen, a former Los Angeles Unified project manager who worked on the Helen Bernstein project, said the district paid Tutor-Saliba to fix mistakes the firm made to keep the project on schedule. Olsen said senior project managers Rick Hijazi and Sharr agreed Tutor was at fault but told him to sign the invoices anyway.

“I think there are a lot of areas that they (Tutor-Saliba) didn’t comply with the building code or the contract and it wasn’t their intent to comply,” he said.

Sharr acknowledged that the district paid Tutor-Saliba to fix mistakes the company may have caused. If the district had not done that, "we would still be arguing about it to this day," he said. "That was a conscious series of discussions at the highest management level about what it was going to take to get the school done.”

Mike Kerchner, a vice president for Tutor-Saliba, was constantly interfering with construction and trying to get additional funds for the company, Olsen said.

Kerchner did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When asked about the criticisms of Kerchner, former Tutor Perini executive Buresh attributed the “huge numbers of errors” on the project to the design professionals, saying their plans were unclear.

While the deviation notices began to number in the hundreds and construction fell behind schedule, Kerchner complained to Los Angeles Unified that the project inspector was causing delays.

“Contrary to our many discussions the LAUSD has not been able to demonstrate any reasonable control or influence with the IOR (inspector of record) on this project,” Kerchner wrote

According to state law, the inspector of record is an independent agent of the Division of the State Architect and cannot be directed by a contractor or the district.

Inspectors contend that the district’s project managers pressured them to sign off on unsafe work. 

“A lot of the people there have let code violations go in order to keep them (project management) happy and allowed contractors to close up work that’s a clear code violation,” said Jones, the former inspection supervisor. “They’ve been certified by people who didn’t want to make waves.”

Despite the construction problems, the school officials paid Tutor-Saliba $15 million in 2010 to settle the firm’s claim that the district had caused delays. 

The district says it is confident the buildings are safe. However, the district did not provide requested documentation showing the remaining issues had been resolved. 

Although Kelly Schmader, Los Angeles Unified’s chief facilities executive, conceded the district struggled with the project, he said in a letter to the school board and district Superintendent John Deasy, “The Helen Bernstein High School is a perfect example of the district's commitment to school building and student safety.” 

Board members plead ignorance

The school board is ultimately responsible for unsafe conditions. At Los Angeles Unified, board members ignored warnings from the district’s inspection department about deficient work and ballooning costs, Jones said.

Two former board members – Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky – said they were not made aware of construction problems at Helen Bernstein before buildings were occupied, despite letters from the inspection department that were copied to the entire board during the time they were members.

“I’m shocked,” Korenstein said. “The whole thing is really horrible.”

Tokofsky, who left the board in 2007, said he was used to hearing about projects with a list of 20 to 50 tasks to be completed. A list of 18,500 is unheard of, he said. “That seems galactic,” he said. “I mean that is massive.”

In an April 24, 2007, letter to Mónica García, the current Los Angeles Unified board president, and the rest of the board, Jones said the district’s project managers were routinely accepting low-quality work and overpaying the contractor. There is no record that the board responded.

García did not return a phone call and e-mail requesting comment.

“The schools are being built in a watered-down system that does not hold the safety of the kids as the most important thing,” said Jones, the former supervising inspector.

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect date for when David Tokofsky left the Los Angeles Unified School Board. He served on the board through 2007.

Clarification: A sentence in an earlier version of this article has been reworded to clarify a state regulator's report of his visit to the manufacturing plant.

Intern Sam Pearson contributed to this report. This story was edited by Denise Zapata and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Filed under: K–12, On Shaky Ground


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