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Seismic safety series already produces results

Yuli Weeks/California WatchCalifornia Watch reporters Corey G. Johnson and Anna Werner talk with Scott Stark, Pomona Unified School District capital facilities director, at Philadelphia Elementary School in Pomona.

The California Watch investigation into seismic safety at California’s public schools prompted results before a word was published. Among the policy changes or decisions that occurred in response to our reporting:

  • For the first time, the state released its performance ratings on school building inspectors, ending a decades-long policy of keeping these files confidential. The move adds a layer of public accountability to the inspection process. A California Watch review showed a significant percentage of poorly rated inspectors had been given additional jobs monitoring school construction.
  • The Division of the State Architect reversed itself on how Field Act certification cases were closed. The office said contractors would again be responsible for filing final paperwork verifying that their work met state standards – a hallmark of the Field Act since its inception in 1933. The requirement had been eliminated by the state architect’s office until reporters asked about it.
  • In September 2009, in response to a California Watch public records request, the state architect’s office discovered at least 20,000 school projects that were rejected for Field Act certification. Of that number, 1,095 building projects were red-flagged because of unresolved safety concerns that arose during construction. Since then, the state has ordered its supervisors to review the projects.
  • After questioning from California Watch, the division acknowledged that it has the power to take action when a school occupies an unsafe building. Previously, the state had believed it did not have the power. The department “now believes it does have the authority and ability to seek enforcement action on a project where occupancy has occurred but where a significant health and safety or seismic safety issue has not been addressed,” Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the Department of General Services, wrote in an e-mail to California Watch.
  • State Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro, pledged to review the state’s oversight of school building projects and uncover why only three schools – out of thousands with questionable seismic safety on a 2002 list – had been allowed to tap into a $200 million state fund for seismic repairs.
  • The State Allocation Board, which controls funding for school districts, created a subcommittee to study ways to create “greater accessibility” to funds for seismic repairs. The first meeting was scheduled for April 12.
  • Administrators at Philadelphia Elementary School in Pomona ordered a review of its seismic safety after learning from California Watch that the school had buildings considered potentially hazardous in an earthquake. A fault line may also rest near the campus, according to federal earthquake data.
  • The top administrator for the state’s community college facilities sent a mass message urging schools to increase efforts to address more than 1,000 uncertified projects in the system. The Field Act also covers community colleges, though these buildings have not been the focus of the California Watch project. The e-mail calls such actions the “best defense” against California Watch’s story.
Filed under: K–12, Public Safety

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