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Findings of Division of the State Architect audit reveal potential safety problems at schools

December 23rd, 2011 · No Comments · Commentary

Alan Lowenthal
State Senator

In March of 1933, a massive 6.3 earthquake destroyed more than 70 schools and severely damaged another 120 in my hometown of Long Beach. Dozens more schools outside of Long Beach were also damaged and destroyed.
As a direct result, and only 30 days after the earthquake, the state Legislature passed the Field Act, which put into place some of the nation’s first seismic building standards for public schools.
The Act also mandated that the state Department of General Services– through its Division of the State Architect (DSA)– oversee and certify the design and construction of public K-12 schools and universities statewide. The DSA is tasked with making sure that every public school construction project in California meets all building, safety and accessibility codes.
Unfortunately, that system of oversight pioneered by the Field Act has broken down, and thousands of schools statewide are at potential risk of everything from minor structural issues to major safety problems.
In April, based on longstanding concerns regarding the division’s efficiency, I called for an audit of the DSA. The findings, issued Dec. 8 by the State Auditor’s office, both confirmed my fears and magnified them.
The audit uncovered a massive backlog of more than 16,400 completed school projects statewide– more than 2,000 in the last three years alone– that remain uncertified by the DSA.
The audit also found that DSA rarely uses its enforcement powers to halt projects with violations, and in virtually all cases, the thousands of uncertified schools are currently open and operating.
The state auditors also found evidence that in at least some recent cases, required DSA inspections are either not being done, or are being done infrequently.
Most disturbing, the state auditors discovered an antiquated and ineffective system of documentation in use by the DSA.
The DSA filing system is so bad that it is virtually impossible to determine how many projects are uncertified for structural issues or for fire and safety issues. Or how many schools remain uncertified for minor problems and how many face serious problems.
Imagine a database of more than 16,400 case files with no way to search by type or severity of violations. This has also led to a system where it is nearly impossible for DSA or anyone else to prioritize which backlogged projects must be dealt with first.
In the meantime, these uncertified schools, and the thousands of students that use them, remain at possible risk. This situation is untenable, unacceptable and, if uncorrected, has the potential for disaster.
It is critical that the recommendations of the State Auditor’s office addressing the issues they found within the DSA be implemented immediately. It is also imperative that the Legislature maintain diligent oversight to ensure the rapid implementation of these corrective measures.
Since the Field Act was enacted nearly 80 years ago, not a single life at a California public school has been lost during an earthquake. While this is an enviable track record highlighting the importance of proper government regulation, we cannot allow such significant safeguards and protections to suffer from inattention.

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