Foster City Schools Deemed Seismically Safe While Other Area Schools Raise Red Flags

San Mateo, Hillsdale high schools require further seismic evaluation.

Public schools in Foster City are seismically up to code, while the state says high schools in San Mateo attended by Foster City students could require further studies to ensure they are safe in an earthquake.

The state reviewed 9,959 schools for structural integrity in 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.

While some schools in the area were sent an AB300 letter informing them of possible seismic problems, , , and were not included in the letters. However, two high schools that Foster City children attend, and , were red-flagged and sent AB300 letters.

While the receipt of an AB 300 letter can mean that there are underlying seismic problems, there can be other factors that would prompt the state send a letter to the school. This process can be both expensive and time intensive, and due to education cuts across the state, some schools have moved forward with upgrades without certifying them.

Essentially, the receipt of a letter means that a school needs to have proper certification and inspection which could lead to structural upgrades or could merely involve certifying exisiting upgrades.

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

The information dates as far back as 2002, however, and could be compromised by incomplete record keeping at the Division of the State Architect. 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.

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McManus contacted the district’s architect, Todd Lee of Greystone West, who told Patch the DSA’s records are outdated.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.

There are nearly 20,000 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 a bit more problematic for the district, due in large part to reduced property values following the market crash of 2008. (Bond measures often base their assessed income on 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.

In the wake of the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, the Legislature approved legislation authored by C. Don Field, commonly known as the Field Act, which established minimum structural standards for the design and construction of K-12 school buildings. Under the Field Act, schools are required to file extensive paperwork with the state to certify seismic integrity.

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. 

Subsequent legislation AB 300 required the Department of General Services (DGS) to conduct a seismic safety inventory of California’s K-12 school buildings. On Nov. 15, 2002, DGS and DSA released the report "Seismic Safety Inventory of California Schools" which evaluated 9,959 schools for structural safety.

If a school project in California costs more than about $33,000 to build, or if it has “structural issues” such a wall, beam or other load-bearing architecture of any kind, then approval from the DSA is required, explained a local schools inspector.

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 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.” (Because he still works regularly with Peninsula school districts, he asked that his name not be used in this story.)

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/


Phyllis McArthur April 08, 2011 at 08:35 PM
This is yet another "10" for Foster City's schools! Not only are our schools rated highly for academics, we are secure in knowing our schools are safe in an earthquake


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