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California Seismic Reform: State Senate Votes For Earthquake Protections On Schools

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This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Corey G. Johnson

A state Senate committee voted today to support legislation that would create a task force to strengthen the state's oversight of earthquake protections for public schools.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, SB 1271 now heads to the Appropriations Committee for review. Under the bill, a task force would have until Jan. 1, 2014, to study and recommend new building standards and policies to bolster school seismic safety.

Corbett introduced the bill in late February following a California Watch investigation and scathing state audit that found regulators charged with overseeing school construction had failed to ensure that buildings were safe.

Corbett presented her bill during a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which voted 8-2 in favor of the measure. The bill was supported by Thomas Duffy, legislative director for California's Coalition for Adequate School Housing; Skip Daum, lobbyist for the California Coalition of Professional Construction Inspectors; and Raul Arambula, legislative analyst for the California Community Colleges, who all spoke at the hearing.

However, some lawmakers expressed doubts. Sen. Roderick D. Wright, D-Inglewood, chairman of the governmental organization committee, questioned whether the seismic safety laws were outdated and too costly for schools. Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said he, too, was concerned that the bill could re-route scarce funds away from other school needs.

"We want safe schools for our students," Yee said. "On the other hand, we also have to understand that we have limited dollars available for the rehab and construction of our schools. So the question is: Where are we going to get the money to ensure that all of our schools are tested for Field Act compliance?"

The Field Act is the state's seismic safety law that was passed in 1933. It gives seismic regulators the "police power of the state" to ensure safety standards are met during each phase of school construction, from early design to the first day of classes.

Corbett clarified that the task force's job would be to bolster oversight, not drain school construction money from state and local building efforts.

"We're going to move forward to make sure the all parties involved in these very important decisions have an opportunity to work together and provide the oversight, so that we're not putting schoolchildren in harm's way in unsafe buildings," Corbett said. "If you read the state auditor's report, you will find, unfortunately, that that was occurring. We need to stop that, and that is what (the bill) is about."

Although no formal opposition to the bill has surfaced, there are differing views among construction professionals about how rigorous state enforcement should be. If the current proposal is successful, the task force would examine whether children and teachers should be able to use buildings that have been flagged by inspectors for deficient construction that poses potential hazards.

The inspectors group wants the law revised so that school construction regulators can block entry. But the Coalition for Adequate School Housing worries that such a change would saddle cash-strapped school administrators with crippling delays and cost increases.

Each group has been pushing to include more members of the school construction community on the proposed task force. The most recent version of the bill added representatives from the community college system, school districts and the state fire marshal onto the task force.

Today's hearing comes after another Senate committee received testimony from the state auditor and state architect about seismic safety reforms.

Newly appointed State Architect Chester Widom assured members of the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness on Friday that staff at the Division of the State Architect was working to streamline bureaucratic rules and review more than 16,000 school projects to ensure their safety.

Corey G. Johnson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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