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School Bond Has a Quake Clause

Times Staff Writer

Buried deep in the proposed $10-billion school bond on next month’s ballot is a provision that many seismic safety experts consider a significant rollback of California’s earthquake regulations.

The clause was placed in Proposition 1-D -- which authorizes borrowing for the construction and modernization of schools -- with the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. It would exempt community colleges from complying with the tough building and inspection standards of the Field Act, meant to protect students from earthquake hazards.

Community colleges have long lobbied to be removed from the Field Act, saying that its detailed building codes and insistence on intense inspections are too costly and delay the completion of important projects.

But earthquake experts, including the state’s Seismic Safety Commission, say that such a move could endanger students and lead to huge losses in the event of a major quake.

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“We believe Field Act buildings are safer buildings,” said Richard McCarthy, executive director of the commission, which called the proposal “flawed” in a recent letter to Schwarzenegger’s legislative affairs secretary.

The law was enacted after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake caused extensive damage to several public schools. It requires that all public classrooms, from kindergarten through the community college level, be built to higher earthquake standards and be subjected to intensive inspections during construction.

It is the inspection process that has frustrated community college administrators more than the safety requirements, according to both supporters and opponents of the proposal to exempt the institutions.

The state agency in charge of reviewing building plans under the Field Act is understaffed and slow in getting the work done. And rapid inflation in the construction industry has meant millions in cost-overruns as community colleges and school districts covered by the Field Act have waited for the reviews.

The Los Angeles Community College District, for example, estimates that it is losing $1 million a month because of delays in getting its plans through the Division of State Architect, said Frederick E. Harris, assistant vice chancellor for facilities for California Community Colleges.

The wording in the bond measure does not specify how or whether new community college buildings would be inspected during construction. Harris said that means community colleges could hire their own inspectors to set their own schedules for examining new buildings.

Harris, who supports the change, said community colleges would be bound by the same rules that govern the University of California and the Cal State systems.

The Field Act, he said, is meant to protect children and therefore restricts certain types of light fixtures and requires specific safety measures to allow youngsters to easily evacuate a building if it is damaged in a quake.

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Community colleges students, he said, average 26 years in age and do not need such accommodations.

“Why is it OK for UC and [Cal State] ... to choose who and where they have their plan reviewed and inspected, and why should community colleges that have a higher median age not be allowed to do it?” Harris said.

But Lucy Jones, a seismic safety commission member and former scientist-in-charge for the U.S. Geological Survey in Southern California, said such a view is shortsighted. Far from saving the major universities money, the exemption from the Field Act has meant that the state’s colleges have had to spend billions in recent years to repair earthquake damage and install seismic upgrades in their buildings.

Cal State Northridge, which was not subject to the Field Act, sustained far more damage in the 1994 Northridge quake than nearby public schools and community colleges, which were built according to the law’s provisions, she said.

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The law’s inspection process, although perhaps burdensome to those trying to get their buildings finished, is vital in ensuring that contractors don’t skimp while constructing schools, Jones said.

This is not the first time the community college proposal has made the rounds in Sacramento. An earlier bill was killed after Jones and others from the Seismic Safety Commission appeared before the Legislature in opposition. It resurfaced last year in another bill about the same time that it was inserted into the bond measure.

Lawmakers who had opposed the earlier version now find themselves supporting it because they fear damaging the chances of the ballot proposition.

“I am supportive of the proposition but unhappy with the one portion of it that exempts the community colleges from the Field Act,” said state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), a longtime seismic safety advocate.

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“Our K-12 schools need to adhere to the Field Act, and my own thought is that our public universities need to also.”

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sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

For exclusive Web features, including the new Political Muscle blog, go to latimes.com/californiapolitics.

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