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Hard-Pressed District Aims For Seismic Safety Certification

While district officials say safety certification for all school building projects is a priority, looming severe budget cuts will make it very difficult.

 A 19-month investigation by California Watch that nearly 20,000 schools across the state, including eight schools in Glendora Unified School District, lacked final certification for seismic safety surprised even Glendora Unified district officials.

Superintendent Dr. Robert Voors said he first heard that any schools within the district had made the list of seismically unsafe school buildings through

“We’re all just finding out now what the issues are, and until then, we will know what we need to do, and any potential costs,” said Voors. “It would have been nice to have heard this from the State Architect’s office.”

California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.

As children, teachers and staff have been allowed to occupy buildings that may include serious safety hazards and may not withstand a major earthquake, school district officials have been pouring over years of school building projects – much of which they are looking at for the first time. Officials have also contacted the Department of the State Architect’s office for more information.

But with $2.5 million in cuts and deadlines to draft budgets with uncertain numbers looming, district officials worry where they will come up with the money to resolve any safety or certification issues.

“We will absolutely seek certification for each project,” said Marc Chaldu, assistant superintendent. “Unfortunately, this will probably take some time and also has a cost involved.”

With reduced staff at the State Architect’s office, Chaldu estimated a 90-day wait before the district receives specific information on their projects.

“At this time we have not been provided any funding from the State to help us with the processes,” Chaldu said.

School building projects listed with seismic safety deficiencies were categorized as either AB300 or Letter 3 or 4 schools. The Department of General Services deemed AB300 projects unable to withstand future major earthquakes and are in immediate need of further structural evaluation. Letter 4 projects were identified by the state architect as the most potentially dangerous of the uncertified projects, while Letter 3 projects are missing required documentation.

The state architect’s office lists eight schools in Glendora Unified categorized as either Letter 3 or 4 projects, or on the AB300 list.

Five schools – , , , and h – had projects on the AB300 list. , , Williams, Sellers Elementary and Whitcomb High School all had projects categorized as Letter 3.

Chaldu said that initial research into district projects indicate much of the concerns are based on missing paperwork rather than actual building safety, however he admitted that district officials are still researching each project and seeking confirmation from the State Architect’s office.

“It seems like the projects on the list are missing information that DSA requires for close out,” said Chaldu. “Also, some schools have not been inspected recently for seismic structural codes so proper information has not been updated at DSA.”

According to Eric Lamoureux, spokesperson for the Department of General Services, Letter 3 projects do not necessarily mean there is a safety hazard involved, and that the project may be missing paperwork or paid fees for certification.

Stanton Elementary was the only Glendora school among about 200 other state schools identified by the Department of General Services with a project still on the Letter 4 list, the most serious of the uncertified classification.

Lamoureux said the department will send letters to each district’s superintendent to notify them of their Letter 4 projects, including Glendora Unified. Lamoureux said school districts will have the opportunity to reopen the project for certification.

According to California Watch, when the organization began asking about uncertified schools last spring, then-State Architect David Thorman ordered his staff to examine records of about 1,100 schools listed as Level 4 schools. Soon after, the office began downgrading schools to Letter 3 without visiting the schools to conduct a field investigation, according to interviews and records.

When California Watch conducted their investigation, two other Glendora Unified schools -- La Fetra Elementary and Glendora High School -- had projects categorized as Letter 4. At some point, they were downgraded to Letter 3.

Chaldu noted that district records show that the State Architect had downgraded La Fetra Elementary from Letter 4 to Letter 3 in March 2010.

“It seems like this issue is more of a compliance issue of paperwork, and I hope that’s true,” said Voors. “But if it is indeed a safety issue, then it is a very serious problem for us.”

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