Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

State architect to increase scrutiny of public school construction projects

Two years after a state audit criticized the California state architect for lax oversight of new school construction, the agency this month introduced a new certification process for schools.

The changes affect public schools and community colleges.

One major difference:  the state Division of the Architect will now review construction throughout the process, rather than waiting until the end, said spokesman Eric Lamoureux. The agency will also ensure that new construction complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The state architect will also follow through on problem projects.  The office has long sent letters to school board members reminding them that, as the responsible parties,  they can be sued when their school systems violate state construction laws. But the letters sometimes had no teeth, Lamoureux said; the agency didn't always follow up.

In December 2011, a state audit said the state architect was weak in both oversight and enforcement of state seismic laws in school construction.  The report listed 16,000 projects missing critical documents --  some of the paperwork missing since the passage of the 1933 Field Act, state legislation still considered among the strictest in the nation for earthquake safety in public school construction. Since the audit’s release, about three thousand of the 16,000 cases have been closed.

The audit also prompted an aggressive review of about 100 school buildings with “safety issues,” Lamoureux said.

These are buildings where, for instance, a wall was moved or altered in some other way from the original plans. While on-site changes are common in the construction process, the school systems failed to submit the requisite paperwork documenting the change and the reasons for it. 

Forty-two campuses with “safety issues” remain under review under the state’s architect’s tighter policies.  In each case, the school district determined the space was safe to occupy, said Lamoureux, though the state has yet to see required documents to certify the schools are, indeed, safe.

Lamoureux said the state has been working with school districts for months, so the changes “won’t be a surprise.”

California Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett, D-San Leandro,  proposed a bill last year to strengthen the state’s seismic safety and oversight laws for school construction. It failed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.  Sergio Reyes, a  spokesman for the senator, said she will be meeting with the state architect soon to review progress and decide whether the internal changes go far enough.

School building safety is increasingly in the public eye. Oklahoma officials called for "safe rooms" in schools after a tornado last month destroyed an elementary school. Colorado officials in 2007 were criticized for their slack oversight of state construction laws after more than a dozen public schools were built without requisite firewall material in a state prone to wildfires.