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LEUSD Schools Out Of Compliance With State’s Earthquake Safety Law

A 19-month investigation finds that lack of funding and limited state oversight may be putting the safety of schoolchildren in peril.

Dozens of schools in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, and thousands more statewide, have potentially dangerous seismic hazards or have never received final seismic safety certification as required by law, according to a 19-month investigative report released Thursday by the non-profit watchdog group California Watch.

In total, California Watch identified five LEUSD schools that have potentially dangerous seismic hazards: , , , , and

District wide, the watchdog group found an additional 49 school construction projects that never received final seismic safety certification as required by law (see list below). Without certification, it's unknown whether there is seismic risk.

Lake Elsinore Unified School District did not respond to questions posed by Patch.com for this story, but Thursday’s California Watch report raises grave questions about the state's lack of enforcement of seismic safety in the schools.

California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with passage of the Field Act. The law requires careful design and inspected construction of public K-12 schools.

To spur Field Act compliance, in 1999 the California legislature approved AB 300, which required the state’s Department of General Services to conduct a “collapse risk” inventory of K-12 school buildings built before July 1, 1978. The list identified 7,537 at-risk buildings statewide that were not in compliance with the Field Act, including LEUSD schools.

In 2008, the DSG’s Division of the State Architect sent the list to all California school districts, in an effort to bring schools up to standard.

“We made the districts aware … (of) the AB 300 list,” said Eric Lamoureux, acting deputy director of the state Department of General Services.

But Lamoureux explained that districts were encouraged – not mandated -- to provide status updates to the Division of the State Architect on necessary upgrade projects.

“There are no statutes that (require) districts respond. Most districts did not come forward,” Lamoureux said, adding that the only time action is taken against a district by the state is when there is an “obvious egregious safety threat.”

Lamoureux said the DSG doesn’t have “quantifiable evidence” that AB 300 at-risk schools are structurally unsound.

“It’s up to the district to verify,” he admitted, noting that school officials can be held criminally liable if a student or staff member dies or is injured by earthquake damage at a school that doesn’t have Field Act certification.

The same lax oversight has been applied to school site construction projects. According to Lamoureux, if a project doesn't get final safety certification as required by law under the Field Act, there are no repercussions. Instead, the state simply denies future construction projects at the site until certification is obtained.

But certifying seismic soundness decades – or nearly a century -- after construction is a large undertaking. And for schools found to be out of compliance with the Field Act, retrofit money is scarce.

In 2006, California voters approved a $199.5 million Seismic Mitigation Program designed to help fund retrofit projects in cash-strapped school districts. But very little money has been dispersed, largely because schools are unable to qualify under the program’s rigid process.

To date, only $4.6 million has been doled out between two schools located in Northern California -- San Ramon Valley High School and Piedmont High School.

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

“They have created a bureaucratic process all about dollars and cents rather than potentially about kids’ lives,” said Zoback, adding that her interpretation of the Seismic Mitigation Program rules exclude nearly every district in the state.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro, wants to hold legislative hearings on the matter to find out why there’s a choke hold on funding.

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

California Watch contends that lack of funding and limited state oversight have put the safety of California’s schoolchildren in peril.

“State regulators have routinely failed to enforce California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards,” the watchdog group reported. “Over the last two decades, enforcement of the Field Act has been plagued with bureaucratic chaos.”

Meanwhile, as the quagmire continues, Lake Elsinore holds a special distinction: It is the namesake and home of one of the state’s largest natural wonders -- the Elsinore fault zone. 

LEUSD schools with construction projects that never received final seismic safety certification as required by law (note: several additional construction projects were identified but could only be tied to the district, and not a specific school):

, , , , , , , , , , Butterfield Elementary (closed), Jean Hayman Elementary (closed), , , ,

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. Read more about Patch's collaboration with California Watch.

angel April 08, 2011 at 11:55 PM
My children attend the LEUSD, cottonwood and Canyon Hills. Please inform me on any updates concerning if what your saying is our children are at risk or is this a state funding issue? Do I need to homeschool my children and what's the catch with Watchdog.com Isn't that the Predators sight. Also is this the same situation Jean Hayman went through? THank You so Much

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