At least three schools in San Mateo were considered by state authorities to be unsafe in the event of an earthquake – but district officials at those schools say the problems, if there were any, have been fixed.
According to information gathered from the Division of the State Architect, or DSA – the state agency tasked with certifying the physical integrity of public school facilities – , and had all been red-flagged for possibly failing to meet seismic standards in some or all of their structures.
The 19-month investigation, compiled by California Watch for a statewide story released Thursday titled “On Shaky Ground,” dates as far back as 2002. However, it could be compromised by incomplete recordkeeping at the DSA. For their part, officials from both the San Mateo Union High School District and the San Mateo-Foster City School District say that when it comes to seismic safety there are no known problems with their facilities.
“Our head of facilities and maintenance operations has called DSA both in Sacramento and locally,” said SMFC spokesperson Joan Rosas. “They are unable to locate any open Letters 4s for our district, and they do not see anything for Borel Middle School.”
A so-called Letter 4 is the most serious warning from the DSA, presumably due to the most dangerous cases of noncompliance. According to California Watch, the DSA has a list of nearly 20,000 school projects that are uncertified – and about 1,000 of the schools on that list, including Borel, were at some point given Letter 4 warnings.
But San Mateo-Foster City officials told Patch that if there was such a letter of noncompliance, no one at the district knows about it, and the DSA does not have a record of it now.
The only other San Mateo school purportedly given a Letter 4 warning was San Mateo High. But that’s old news, according to SMUHSD’s Liz McManus, deputy superintendent for business services.
Originally, “San Mateo High School was built without any rebar support,” she explained. But that was “prior to the actions that have taken place” in 2003, when much of the school was torn down and rebuilt.
McManus contacted the district’s architect, Todd Lee of Greystone West, who told Patch the DSA’s records are outdated.
“Their inventory list is not up to date,” he said. “If there were anything in San Mateo that were not seismically safe, they would have been the old masonry buildings” – including the original San Mateo High School buildings – all of which have been torn down and replaced, he said.
Another important red-flag designation by the DSA is the AB 300 list, which Lee described as “a list of schools that were built mainly in the ’50s and ’60s, with primarily concrete … that were deemed to be seismically unsafe or the DSA requested that school districts do an investigation and prove the schools are seismically safe.”
He added that the determination of school facilities’ safety is based partly on “proximity to earthquake faults, and the type of construction.”
There are several thousand schools on the AB 300 list throughout California. In San Mateo, only one, Hillsdale High, is on the list, according to California Watch.
But Lee said his records did not show any problem with noncompliance at Hillsdale High, and thought the issue, if there was one, might have been resolved thanks to Measure D, a $137.5 million school bond measure for seismic upgrades which passed in 2000.
As a result of Measure D funds, “Most of the (seismic upgrade) work was done between 2003 and 2008,” Lee said.
As for the AB 300 list, “I would be surprised if Hillsdale showed up on that list,” Lee said, “because it’s not the type of construction that we would expect to see on that list.” He added that “Hillsdale High frankly is exactly the same as Mills High School, Aragon and also Crestmoor” in its construction.
Both Lee and McManus brought up Measure M, a more recent, $298-million bond measure designed to keep district facilities seismically safe. Thanks to the work done with Measure M, Lee said, “There’s been a few little (DSA) requirements but nothing significant.”
Passed in 2006, Measure M has been somewhat problematic as a funding source for the district, due to reduced property values following the real estate market crash of 2008. (Bond measures usually base their income on assessed property value.) But regardless of those issues, McManus assured Patch there were no known problems with seismic safety at any of the high school district’s facilities.
The Field Act
All this seismic evaluation is thanks to the Field Act, put forth by state legislator C. Don Field soon after the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933. Hundreds of Southern California school buildings were toppled in the magnitude 6.3 quake, which fortunately occurred in the late afternoon or hundreds, possibly thousands, of schoolchildren could have died.
The Field Act established minimum structural standards for the design and construction of K-12 school buildings throughout California – and today school districts are required to file extensive paperwork with the state to certify seismic integrity.
Since its approval in the 1930s, the law has been updated many times to account for better earthquake-safe engineering techniques. In 1999, the state Legislature approved AB 300, requiring the state Department of General Services to conduct a “collapse risk” inventory of the state’s K-12 school buildings. The report concluded that 7,537 buildings – approximately 14 percent of the total square footage in the state’s public K-12 schools – were not expected to withstand future earthquakes and urgently needed further structural evaluation to gauge needed repairs.
Not long after, the DSA and DGS together reviewed 9,959 schools for structural integrity. The result was “Seismic Safety Inventory of California Schools,” a report released in 2002, and periodically updated, that found more than 7,000 state public schools at risk from an earthquake.
Reasons for Noncompliance
Although the DSA lists nearly 20,000 individual school projects that are not compliant, not all of those projects are necessarily dangerous – due to an earthquake or any other hazard. Usually, experts said, it just means the project hasn’t been certified.
If a school project in California costs more than about $33,000 to build, or if it has “structural issues” such as a wall, beam or other load-bearing architecture of any kind, then approval from the DSA is required, explained a local schools inspector. (Because he still works regularly with Peninsula school districts, he asked that his name not be used in this story.)
Often, he said, the problem is that districts “just don’t know” this is the case.
For example, a school district’s maintenance department might build a baseball dugout or a retaining wall, or even just repave a parking lot. Generally, the inspector said, districts assume such small-scale projects are OK to build without state approval – but that’s not true.
That mistake happens “all the time,” he said. “It even happens right in my district right here.”
The inspector – who has more than 15 years of experience working with Peninsula schools, including on several multimillion-dollar projects – told Patch that “I would guess that there are in fact thousands of non-certified projects in California. And what it means is that the state architect has not taken responsibility for those projects.”
Another common problem with DSA certification results from “poor paperwork,” the inspector said. In these cases, 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 incentive to cut corners is strong, he said: “To go back and fix those windows would blow the budget, so nobody wants to do that.”
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.”
He likened blaming the DSA for uncertified projects to blaming the DMV for unlicensed drivers.
“The only enforcement they have is to not certify a building. That’s all they can do.”
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.”
Even when paperwork is all filed accordingly, project certification can move slowly these days. Some school administrators said state budget cuts have led to work furloughs at the DSA, meaning the certification process is bottlenecking in Sacramento.
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.
To view the interactive map, click here http://projects.californiawatch.org/earthquakes/school-safety/