Children participate in an earthquake drill at an elementary school in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The state has made it virtually impossible for school districts to access a pot of money set aside for urgent seismic repairs on more than 7,500 school buildings that have been listed for nearly a decade as potentially unsafe, records and interviews show.

Five years ago, California voters approved more than $10 billion in bonds for school construction, carving out about $200 million to shore up the state’s seismically unsafe school buildings. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger boasted that it was the first time the state had earmarked funds specifically to improve earthquake safety in schools.

But the amount of money needed to address the state’s inventory of potentially vulnerable school buildings was far greater – $4.7 billion. The list was created in 2002.

As the Schwarzenegger administration decided how to dole out a limited amount of money, it worried about a rush on the funding, according to internal e-mails and memos obtained by California Watch. The concern prompted the administration to set a high bar for schools to qualify.

Instead of thousands of schools vying for the money, about three dozen buildings – at school districts in Humboldt, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Alameda, Los Angeles and San Benito counties – met the requirements. A subsequent analysis for the Office of Public School Construction reduced the number of qualified schools even further – to just 20 buildings in the state.

To date, only two schools have accessed the fund. San Ramon Valley High School received $3.6 million to build a new gym, and Piedmont High School was awarded $1 million for two renovation projects.

The rest of the money remains unspent amid massive budget shortfalls.

The bureaucratic chains placed on the bond money highlight California’s immense challenge in assuring seismic safety at public schools.

In Los Angeles County alone, about 3,000 school buildings remain on the state’s list of potentially unsafe structures, according to a California Watch analysis. Just two – the gymnasium and a classroom building at Hart High School in Newhall – have qualified for seismic repair funds.

Orange County, meanwhile, has about 1,000 buildings listed. None have qualified under the state’s funding formula, state records show. Neither have more than 350 school buildings in San Diego County.

Mary Lou Zoback – a former research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a vice president at Risk Management Solutions, which advises the insurance industry on catastrophe risk – said she was appalled at the state’s restrictive rules.

“They have created a bureaucratic process all about dollars and cents rather than potentially about kids’ lives,” Zoback said.

She added that the standards would exclude nearly the entire state from funding, including the San Francisco Peninsula, which sits atop the San Andreas Fault. More than 300 public school structures in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties remain on the state’s list of potentially unsafe buildings.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro, who spearheaded the effort in 2002 to create the inventory of the state’s most vulnerable school buildings, also said she was surprised the administration had so severely limited access to the repair money. Corbett now wants to hold legislative hearings to find out what happened.

“If we’re doing something that puts children at risk, it’s unacceptable,” she said.

Administration acknowledges limits

H.D. Palmer – a spokesman for the Department of Finance under Schwarzenegger and the current governor, Jerry Brown – said he doesn’t believe the office made any mistakes in calculating the number of schools that would qualify for the bond money. The formula was based on information the administration had at the time, he said.

“We at the Department of Finance have been continually pushing for improved criteria that would provide opportunities for more school districts to be eligible for funds,” Palmer said.

Palmer acknowledged that the limited amount of money available for seismic repairs factored into the administration’s decisions about the stringent standards.

After the 2006 bond measure was approved, the Schwarzenegger administration worried about how to categorize the buildings. Among the fears: classifying too many buildings as “most vulnerable” would cause panic and lead to calls to close schools. The administration outlined its concerns in a May 1, 2007, “Governor’s Office Action Request” sent by the Department of General Services and the State and Consumer Services Agency.

Their solution was a detailed formula that weighed the expected cost of repairs against the intensity of earthquakes predicted around those vulnerable schools.

Money would “drive the criteria,” according to the document. “The State will likely receive considerable criticism from school districts and their communities because some at-risk school buildings will not qualify for this funding.”

In the end, records show, the science was made to conform to the budget.

Finance officials win out

The Division of the State Architect – the chief regulator of public school construction – had recommended a lower amount of ground-shaking intensity to enable more schools to qualify for the money. But Schwarzenegger’s office was persuaded more by the Department of Finance’s argument for a much higher mark, records show.

“Care must be taken to define vulnerable buildings in a way that does not over-expose the state to funding beyond the funds provided,” stated a June 14, 2007, internal memo at the Department of Finance.

The rules prompted alarm at the state Seismic Safety Commission.

An internal e-mail from August 2007 – written by a top commission official – quotes then-Chairman Gary McGavin, a school architect, warning that the restrictive standards “leave a LOT of vulnerable Collapse Hazard Public School Buildings” and that “some modern buildings … might suffer significant damage even with the code reductions.”

The state architect’s office had originally pushed for a 1.35g intensity level – the measure of ground shaking likely to damage a one- to three-story building.

The Schwarzenegger administration eventually settled on areas that could expect ground movement of at least 1.7g – far more powerful, Zoback said, than the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 and the Northridge quake in 1994. The administration also restricted the types of buildings that could qualify for money.

In Long Beach, where school buildings collapsed in a 1933 quake that spawned the state’s landmark seismic safety law known as the Field Act, the decision was baffling.

Long Beach official Carri M. Matsumoto wrote to the Office of Public School Construction, which administers bond funds, to complain that all 31 schools in her district had been rejected, including five high schools with buildings on the list of potentially seismically unsafe facilities.

Ending her letter, she requested that the regulations be changed to “ensure that a future seismic event does not again devastate our schools.” Matsumoto, who oversees building projects at Long Beach Unified School District, declined to comment for this story.

Faced with district complaints about the program, the state decided to slightly loosen the rules to make it somewhat easier to access the money.

At an August 2009 meeting, the state architect’s office and the Department of Finance won approval for rules that reduced the ground-shaking figure from 1.7g to 1.68g. The state also added more types of buildings – including those with certain types of precast concrete frames – that could qualify for seismic repair funds.

In practical terms, the new calculations did not change the fortunes of schools on the seismic list. State officials said that only a handful of additional buildings, on top of the existing 20 buildings, would now qualify for funding.

In late March, after California Watch began questioning the formula, the State Allocation Board, which controls funding for school districts, created a subcommittee to study ways to create “greater accessibility” to the Seismic Mitigation Program. Its first public meeting is set for April 12.

Philadelphia Elementary School would seem to fit into the category of a school in need of a seismic upgrade.

In 2002, state officials put the Pomona school on its seismic-hazard inventory and urged the district to hire engineers for structural assessments of its buildings. The school uses four buildings that state engineers have determined could be potentially hazardous in an earthquake. They include two classrooms, one administration office and a lunch shelter.

Moreover, the school sits near the Chino-Central Avenue Fault, which seismologists estimate can produce a magnitude 6.7 earthquake.

The Pomona Unified School District has raised about $300 million in bonds for new construction and renovations. A sliver of that money bought Philadelphia Elementary a new marble sign. The school’s irrigation system was upgraded, producing neat, green campus grounds.

But Pomona Unified administrators have done little to fix the problems at Philadelphia Elementary.

An architectural firm, hired by Pomona Unified to determine which schools were seismically vulnerable, left Philadelphia off its report. The school and 22 others were shut out because they did not meet the funding qualifications established by the Schwarzenegger administration, documents show.

After talking with California Watch, Stark ordered a detailed assessment of Philadelphia’s buildings. The evaluation should be completed this spring.

“All I can tell you is in Pomona, we’ve got our own funding source,” Stark said. “And we’re moving forward with doing our own evaluations.”

    Your support is crucial!

    Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.