A 19-month investigation released Thursday by California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.
A dozen Napa schools appear on California Watch’s interactive map of projects identified by the state as lacking final safety certification: , , , , , , , , and schools.
But their appearance on the map is strictly a matter of incomplete paperwork, said Don Evans, the man who has personally shepherded every school site in the through many millions of dollars’ worth of seismic-safety improvements during the past 15 years.
“We do have some projects that are in the process of being closed out with the Department of the State Architect,” said Evans, who has been head of operations at the school district since the 1980s.
But, Evans said, “I’m 100 percent positive” that "students and teachers are not at risk" in district school buildings, including the two schools the state has identified as within 1/4 mile of a known fault, Snow and West Park elementary schools.
If district voters had not passed a series of facilities bonds, this report might be very different. But by the 1990s, Napa schools were in “such deplorable condition,” Evans said, that the community could no longer ignore the need for a facilities bond measure.
The passage of Measure Y, in 1996, and Measure M, in 2002, provided between them nearly $120 million to bring decaying, unsafe campuses up to code. More recently, Measure G in 2006 brought another $183 million to modernize district facilities. For each bond measure, an oversight committee of community members has served as a watchdog to ensure the funds were spent on the projects voters had approved, which included bringing every campus into compliance with seismic-safety rules.
While Napa’s schools may be safe, the state still wants to see the paperwork.
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.
In Napa, the state’s data include 10 schools with one or more buildings, or “projects,” covered under the state law known as AB 300, and two schools with “Letter 4” projects.
The AB 300 designation refers to a statewide 2002 inventory of school buildings with potentially dangerous seismic hazards that require more detailed evaluation. Legislation was passed three years earlier requiring the Division of the State Architect to develop this inventory of older school construction that did not meet the 1976 Uniform Building Code.
If the state deems schools might possibly be unsafe in the event of an earthquake, it will send an AB 300 letter to the school district.
While ending up on the AB 300 list of potentially seismically risky schools can indicate dangerous safety issues, it can also signify a simple lapse in certification paperwork, even if safety upgrades have already been made.
A so-called Letter 4 is the most serious warning from the DSA, presumably due to the most dangerous cases of noncompliance. According to California Watch, the DSA has a list of nearly 20,000 school projects that are uncertified – and about 1,000 of the schools on that list were at some point given Letter 4 warnings.
Portables and paperwork alike tend to languish.
Evans could not respond specifically to each project on short notice, but said the AB 300 listing of Napa projects and schools was likely related to the presence of 1970s-era relocatable classrooms that, when they were leased decades ago, were not required to go through a full review by the state architect’s office.
“Nobody ever thought that we would keep them,” Evans said, adding that the district has already demolished two old portables that would have been too costly to bring up to current standards.
Evans was adamant that all remaining structures used by students and teachers are seismically safe.
The district also has two elementary schools, Shearer and West Park, where the state’s data identifies a Letter 4 project.
Letter 4 designation indicates that at some point during construction of this particular item at the school, an inspector, field engineer or other on site identified a possible structural deficiency or health safety issue. The issue may have been resolved, but the proper documentation may not have been submitted to the state.
“Probably the fault lies on both sides,” said Evans, as the state has increased its reporting requirements while district operations staffs remain small and geared for action more than paperwork.
“I think a lot of districts are like Napa,” he said, “with one guy – a Don Evans, if you will – and one secretary running multiple projects.”
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.