Who’s at Fault for Not Repairing Calif. Schools?

Due to restrictive rules, money for urgent seismic repairs eludes California schools.
by | April 18, 2011

Here’s a quick geography lesson:

California sits on a veined terrain of fault lines, including the heavily-stressed, 810-mile San Andreas Fault. Because of all the pressure building up along this fault and the many others, geologists have said for years that the “big one” is coming. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicted that a magnitude-6.7 or larger earthquake will strike California by 2038.

Up and down the state, every school child learns that even though you can’t exactly predict an earthquake, you can prepare for one. But what good is disaster preparedness if you are in a building doomed to collapse?

For nearly a decade, more than 7,500 school buildings throughout the state have been on the state’s unsafe list, which means they need urgent seismic repairs, according to data gathered by California Watch, a nonprofit news organization. Granted, the report notes, this dilemma was addressed five years ago when voters approved more than $10 billion in bonds for school construction, and nearly $200 million to gird unstable school buildings.

However, Corey G. Johnson reports, school districts actually needed a few more dollars to fix the buildings. And by a few, that’s about $4.7 billion in total. According to California Watch, Los Angeles County alone has about 3,000 school buildings at risk. With demand so high, the Schwarzenegger administration feared that funds would dry up quickly. And so, the idea was to raise the qualifying bar, which made it virtually impossible for school districts to get any money for the repairs needed.

The result? Only two schools have accessed the fund so far.

"They have created a bureaucratic process all about dollars and cents rather than potentially about kids' lives," Mary Lou Zoback, a former research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and vice president at Risk Management Solutions told California Watch.

Did I mention that hundreds of fault lines run under California? As budget talks have crumbled between Gov. Jerry Brown and the GOP, this repair money has gone unspent. But the outlook may be shifting.

Last week, a subcommittee of the State Allocation Board, which controls bond funding for school districts, ordered state construction officials to find ways to get more schools with dangerous buildings the money needed to fix them. At the same time, as noted in another article that Johnson penned and was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Acting State Architect Howard "Chip" Smith defended the current criteria because it prevents the influx of “highly subjective” reports from schools vying for a piece of the pie.

It’s a valid point, but it doesn’t resolve the issue. And this is an issue that needs to be resolved because, in California, the budget isn’t the only thing that’s unstable.