Saturday, April 9, 2011

Many schools in California not earthquake-safe or ADA compliant

From Murrieta Patch:

Some construction and remodeling projects in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District are still awaiting final certification to qualify as earthquake-safe.

The district is not alone.

A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.

Many schools in California fell under an Assembly Bill 300 list, meaning one or more of their buildings posed potentially dangerous seismic hazards. No Murrieta schools fell under that most severe list, but some projects done on school sites are still missing paperwork before they can be considered certified by the state. The AB 300 list was compiled in 2002.

"According to the Department of State Architect's (DSA) most recent AB 300 list, there are no schools in the district that are deemed unsafe for earthquakes. In fact, there are no major safety deficiencies at our schools whatsoever. The building projects in our district that are currently listed as uncertified are there only because certain documents are missing from DSA's files or there is a need to address very minor corrections," said Bill Olien, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations for the Murrieta Valley Unfied School District.

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.

When California Watch's investigation first began in 2002, there were 10 school projects in the Murrieta Valley Unified School District that had not been certified by the Division of State Architect's Office (DSA), which meant there were safety deficiencies.

As of the most recent data, there are six projects at Murrieta schools that have been closed out by the state office but do not have all documentation in place, meaning they are still without final certification. There is one uncertified project at Avaxat Elementary, one at Rail Ranch Elementary and three at Murrieta Valley High School.

Olien said the district has spent the last few years paring that list down. To accomplish that, the district pays a consultant to go through files at the state office, one of which is located in San Diego.

He claimed that in most of the cases, it turns out to be a misplaced paper--sometimes one that was lost more than 15 years ago.

"It is important to know it is not about safety issues, it is about paperwork," Olien said. "All of ours have been that case.

"You really can't occupy a building unless you have been signed off by an inspector," he said, "so 10 years ago if you were signed off on 99 percent (of the work), they allowed you to occupy it without (the file) being closed."

Olien said the uncertified status of these six projects is due to new work that has been undertaken at the school sites, such as new shade structures at Rail Ranch Elementary. When the shade structures were put in, an inspector saw that one of the school's wheelchair ramps was not built to current code under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Until that ramp is completed, the project remains uncertified by the state office.

When shade structures at Shivela Middle School were installed, the district was required to do $80,000 in updates.

"Which is not a bad thing," he said.

That project was later removed from a list of uncertified projects.

At Murrieta Valley High School, Olien said that when eight portables were installed in 2008, the inspector gave the wrong serial numbers. That project has sat without certification since 2008 because of the mishap. According to the district, it is complete and will be closed soon.

Another project at Murrieta Valley listed as without DSA certification because of paperwork is the swimming pool. That project was closed in 2000 without all the documentation in place.

Overall, he said the district spends a couple hundred thousand a year for consultants, completing upgrades and site testing to comply with DSA's standards.

According to an interactive map provided by California Watch, there are seven Murrieta schools built within one-fourth mile of an earthquake fault, four built in a liquefaction zone and two built within one-fourth mile of a landslide zone.

"This whole valley is a liquefaction zone," said Britt Rees, director of construction for the district.

He explained because of the faults that run through California, the state is much stricter than elsewhere. All school sites must be approved by the California Department of Education--which now consults the U.S. Geological Survey as part of its approval process--before construction can commence.

All sites must go through a geotechnical review before they can be considered for purchase by the school district, he said. In order to build Murrieta Mesa High School, the district first had to pay to drill down 75 feet to remove alluvial soil (soil that is liquefaction-prone), Rees said. That soil was then replaced with safe soil.

"In an earthquake I would be in any of our school buildings," Olien said.

The district's oldest school, Murrieta Elementary, was built in 1958. It underwent a major remodel 10 years ago.