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'Are Alameda Schools Safe?'

While California has passed laws requiring school districts to assess, monitor and upgrade the earthquake safety of their facilities, the systems for doing so are chaotic and incompletely implemented.

Alameda Unified's Chief Business Officer, like other AUSD administrators, works in a portion of the old building that is not certified as "Field Act" compliant.

Finished in 1936, it was never signed off on as meeting the tight safety requirements for public schools and is therefore considered unsafe for children

"Until the 1990s when they did the modernization of the and separated the east and west wings from the central part of the building," says CBO Robert Shemwell. "The building was not certified." 

Along with two wings of the old Alameda High building, the portion that houses the adult school is also not Field Act compliant.

Safety standards become ever-more-stringent, says Shemwell, as more is learned about what construction methods will best survive in an earthquake. The challenge of tracking compliance, both at the district level and at the state level, especially in an ongoing climate of fiscal constraints, is no small issue.

Shemwell says he plans to present a proposal to the AUSD board on April 26 to conduct a comprehensive assessment of all the district's often-aging facilities.

"We don't know where the emergencies are in this district," said Shemwell. "We continue to plug holes, patch things that blow up,  like the pools, make repairs to our roofs, repairs to our floors, discover gas pipes that need excavating."

A comprehensive assessment, says Shemwell, will help AUSD be proactive rather than reactive. 

"I want to know up front what is the condition of our faciliites, so as we do long-range planning, we can think about where we want to be investing our money, what are our top priorities," said Shemwell.

Those priorities, says Shemwell, will include looking at what facilities might be most safe and what others might be in such poor repair that upgrading them might not make sense long term.

"I want to look 10, 15 and 50 years out," Shemwell said. "What do we want our district's facilities to look like then?"

Shemwell also wants to do the research that would allow AUSD to apply for state and federal funds that are available to support local district's efforts to upgrade facilities. 

Alameda's efforts to maintain safe facilities, are part of a state-wide challenge to keep school buildings as safe as possible. The system of laws and monitoring has many flaws and challenges.

A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.  

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. 

A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades. 

In 1999, a bill authored by Ellen Corbett, AB300, required the state Department of General Services to conduct a seismic safety inventory of California’s K-12 school buildings. The 2002 report is sometimes called the AB300 report, and is the basis for the California Watch study.

In Alameda, projects done at some schools appear in the California Watch report, which includes an interactive map of data, compiled from a number of sources.

 But the AB300 list is outdated and incomplete, and was intended only to give state legislators a sense of the magnitude of potential problems. 

Shemwell says he hopes a new audit of the district's facilities will highlight potential problem issues, to get the benefit of the most recent information of earthquake safety so wise choices can be made. 

"If we find something that has been found more likely to fail in a major earthquake," said Shemwell. "That should go to the top of our list."

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 with California Watch. 

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