by Corey G Johnson, The Bay Citizen
A Los Gatos school district's decision to halt construction of a new elementary school over state geologists' safety concerns has inflamed a local mountain community and highlighted the difficulty of building schools in seismically vulnerable areas.
Los Gatos Union School District officials will meet with the California Geological Survey this week to discuss whether plans for a new Lexington Elementary School can be salvaged. Last month, school trustees voted to halt building plans after the state geologist's office found a district engineering report didn't adequately account for seismic hazards at the school site.
Trustees also approved a plan to vacate the existing buildings at Lexington and transfer students to portable buildings at Fisher Elementary School — a decision that outraged some 300 people at the April board meeting and sparked a flood of parent complaints.
According to a March 27 letter to the district, state geologists found that Pacific Crest Engineering's analysis of Lexington Elementary failed to account for ground moisture in its predictions about land stability, despite test results that showed evidence of water-saturated soil. State geologists also concluded the engineering report underestimated the severity of earthquake forces present at the school. Lexington Elementary has been at its Old Santa Cruz Highway location since the 1950s. The property is vulnerable to landslides and is near the San Andreas Fault, one of the most active in the nation. Pacific Crest Engineering's report is based on ground shaking during a 7.3-magnitude earthquake. But state geologists wrote that the school should be designed to withstand a 8.0-magnitude quake, which is what seismic experts recommend for that area:
According to the National Seismic Hazard Maps, the M8.0 earthquake is the characteristic earthquake from co-seismic rupture of all four northern San Andreas fault segments (Offshore, North Coast, Peninsula, and Santa Cruz Mountain) and it represents the largest contribution to the ground motion hazards at the Lexington Elementary School site. ...
Consequently, the consultants' emphasis of a M7.35 scenario instead of a M8.0 scenario in their duration estimation is not conservative.
The issue highlights the thorny complexities that can surface in striving to build schools that are seismically safe. State geologists say private geologists and engineers often make errors assessing hazards.
However, when state experts catch technical mistakes or errant interpretations, some contractors are resistant to making changes. The financial burden for fixes and the resulting delays are frequently passed onto the school district, causing construction costs to skyrocket. School administrators usually end up paying the bill – regardless of who's at fault.
Construction estimates for Lexington have increased from $18 million to $21.5 million, in large part from spending close to $4 million on seismic-hazard investigations, school officials said. In a September 2011 letter, the state geologist cited 34 issues that went unaddressed by Pacific Crest Engineering.
Mike Kleames, an geotechnical engineer for Pacific Crest Engineering, told Los Gatos board members last month it would cost millions more and require administrators to be "jumping through the same hurdles" to mitigate the latest concerns.
State officials have denied being too strict and said they continue to work closely with the district. But cost concerns and school attorney warnings of possible lawsuits apparently weighed heavily on Los Gatos school officials. Trustees voted 5-0 to abandon the current Lexington Elementary campus. A final decision will be made at the May 15 board meeting, and student relocation could begin by August.
Meanwhile, some parents and others in Los Gatos say they feel betrayed. Local residents were promised school improvements for Lexington Elementary when they supported a parcel tax increase in 2001, yet the funds were spent on four other schools. Community members were also told the school would be included in a $30 million bond. Despite the measure's successful passage in June 2010, Lexington Elementary parents are now seeing their hopes for a new school dashed, again.
In a letter to Los Gatos Patch titled "Help us save Lexington School," one parent wrote:
I deeply believe there is someone out there who can help our kids, the kids that have a love for their community, and the first-graders who cried together when they heard they are moving next year and asked so many questions.
What is going to happen to my friends, what about our teachers, what about the trees, the nest of the bird on that big tree, what are they going to name us? What is going to happen to my desk and chair? When are we going to come back? What do they want to do with our school, with our building? What do they want to do with our soccer field? Does our new place have a soccer field? Does our neighborhood postman bring the mail to our new school? Can we still play in (the) new school after school is done?
I demand answers to their questions and teach them that they have rights and they are going to get their rights, like all other kids in the Los Gatos Union School District who got a new school.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.thebaycitizen.org.