While hundreds of public school buildings are considered potentially unsafe for children to occupy in the event of an earthquake, those located in Menlo Park are seismically sound.
A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.
California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.
Menlo Park City School District is in the process of rebuilding many of its schools so that they can accommodate an increase in its student population, and keep children safe in the event of an earthquake. But it has a bit of catching up to do on its paperwork.
Menlo Park City School District has 26 projects that are awaiting approval from the Division of the State Architect, five of which are considered AB300 projects. Assembly Bill 300 was passed in 1999 and requires the state to compile a seismic safety inventory of California’s K-12 school buildings. If the state deems schools unsafe, it will send an AB300 letter to the school district.
According to Ahmad Sheikholeslami, director of Facility and Planning Construction for Menlo Park City School District, the main reason that those projects have not been certified and closed out is because of the bureaucratic process.
“It’s just a matter of paperwork that needs to get done,” Sheikholeslami said. “With some of these projects it’s just a matter of making sure that we follow up and make sure that the state hasn’t lost any of it,” he added.
The process routinely takes as long as a year, but as soon as they are certified, he marks them off on his board and moves onto the next one. After the 1933 earthquake in Long Beach demolished 70 schools, California Assemblyman C. Don Field wrote a bill, now called The Field Act, that would require construction projects that cost more than $1,000 to pass inspections that would ensure their stability in the event of an earthquake.
Six years later, the Department of General Services assessed the structural integrity of the more than 16,000 public schools in California to see if they would withstand an earthquake. According to an assessment done by California Watch, approximately 7,537 buildings in the K-12 California public school system were found to be at risk of a collapse.
Now whenever a school starts a new project, schools must submit their designs and project proposals to the DSA to get them certified, or deemed officially safe for children to occupy. An inspector will visit the location and assess it to make sure that it adheres to all applicable laws and codes. Then the inspectors report back to the DSA and approve or deny the project with a certificate of approval.
With the student population growing at a rapid pace, making schools safe is one of the district’s top priorities, Sheikholeslami said.
“In every aspect we make sure that things are secured and anchored,” he said. “For example, if there’s a light fixture that could swing in an earthquake, we’ll make sure it doesn’t hit anything when it swings.”
He said that the projector mounts are secured in a way that they will not land on children if they fall.
With about 2,600 students enrolled right now and the population expected to grow, the district has been expanding the amount of classrooms available for students to learn in.
Encinal, , Laurel and are near faults, so all four schools are equipped with earthquake kits full of emergency food, water and medical supplies to help people get through a natural disaster. Encinal Elementary has an entire train canister full. (See photo)
And although school administrators are taking every precaution available to keep the children in the district safe, some of the projects remain uncertified.
Patch spoke with a state architect who works regularly with Peninsula school districts about the situation.
“I would guess that there are in fact thousands of non-certified projects in California," he said "And what it means is that the state architect has not taken responsibility for those projects.” (Because he still works with the school districts, the inspector asked that his name not be used in this story.)
He said that larger projects – ones the districts know for sure will require state approval – are pre-approved by the DSA but not properly signed off afterward. And all too often, even after a project is understood to be uncertified, bringing it up to code means that “Somebody has to come up with some money. And generally it’s a lot of money.”
The inspector also noted that it’s not quite accurate to blame the DSA for these oversights. When it comes to uncertified structures, he said, “Its not the DSA’s job to fix it, it’s the school district’s job to fix it.”
The ultimate responsibility, he said, lies with the individual school districts and their boards of trustees.
"If they don’t certify it’s safe, then each and every member of the school board is liable for the safety of the building,” he said, adding, “Most school boards, if they knew it, would never allow it to happen.”
Sheikholeslami said that ideally the state would provide funding for all of the things that the district is mandated to do. But often that is not the case.
In the meantime, he has created an incentive for projects to get completely certified in a timely manner. He’s holding 5 percent of the architects’ fees until the projects are closed out.
This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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