By Corey G. Johnson, California Watch
SACRAMENTO – A proposal to study seismic safety improvements for public schools – which won initial legislative support – quietly died in an Assembly committee during the last weeks of the legislative session.
The measure, SB 1271, focused on whether schools should allow staff and students to occupy unsafe structures and whether the state can penalize officials for evading California's seismic safety law, known as the Field Act. Under the bill, independent experts would have proposed improvements for the Division of the State Architect, which regulates school construction.
The Legislature went home without approving the measure, written by Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett.
"We did all we could do," Corbett said, "and we will continue to monitor (the state architect's office) to make sure it is fulfilling its mission to protect California’s schoolchildren and certify the seismic safety of new school buildings in a timely fashion."
School districts pay the state architect to approve school building plans, monitor construction in the field and then certify the work has met strict quality control standards. Such certification is mandatory under state law, to ensure the structures can withstand an earthquake's violent shaking.
An investigation by The Bay Citizen's sister site California Watch last year found the office routinely allowed children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. More than 16,000 school projects across the state lack the required certification, with roughly 42,000 students in buildings with unresolved safety issues.
The California State Auditor's Office has concluded that the office's oversight flaws had increased the safety risk to schools. One report slammed the agency's enforcement of building standards, calling its supervision neither comprehensive nor effective.
In their defense, officials in the state architect's office blamed the seismic safety law itself, which they argue doesn't give them the authority to stop children and teachers from entering unsafe structures. The state auditor's report urged the state architect to push for legal changes to prevent occupancy of unsafe schools, and SB 1271 would have asked experts to recommend ways to do so.
Earlier this year the state Senate approved SB 1271, which had garnered broad support from the school construction community. But the bill stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Last month, outgoing Chairman Felipe Fuentes, D-Arleta, moved the measure to the committee's "suspense file," which is an internal process used by Assembly leaders to privately review expensive legislation.
After the review, Fuentes' successor, Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, declined to move SB 1271 out of the suspense file, effectively killing the bill without taking a public vote. The bill was among several measures killed by the committee Aug. 16 without a vote.
No reason was given for the decision.
Gatto has not told Corbett why the measure died, said Andrew LaMar, Corbett's spokesman. Gatto's office also did not respond to California Watch's questions about the decision.
Before its defeat, the proposal sailed through the state Senate and the Assembly Education Committee, supported by school inspectors and the Coalition for Adequate School Housing – an influential lobbying group that advocates for schools, architects, builders, developers and financial representatives.
But when the measure reached the Assembly Appropriations Committee, committee staff member Kimberly Rodriguez questioned whether the bill was needed. Rodriguez's Aug. 8 bill analysis states:
"It is unclear how a statutory requirement to submit a report will further this process," she wrote. "If the Legislature is interested on the status and recommendations of the internal process conducted by the (state architect's office), it is within its purview to request the (state architect's office) to report to policy or budget subcommittees on these issues without a statutory requirement."
Supporters questioned how the bill landed in the suspense file in the first place. To qualify for suspense, a legislative proposal must have implementation costs of $150,000 or more.
The Senate estimate for Corbett's bill was between $70,000 and $100,000. Two Department of Finance analyses calculated costs of approximately $142,000.
Expenses to implement the panel would have been paid by the state architect's office, which has a budget of more than $15 million. The office is predominantly financed by fees from school districts and not the state's general fund. To drive down costs further, however, Corbett tweaked the proposal so an existing state architect advisory panel could do the work, LaMar said.
At an Aug. 8 hearing, committee members heard arguments from Corbett and supporters of the bill. In the end, none of those arguments made a difference. Rodriguez's estimates for the bill placed costs at "approximately $150,000" – the minimum cut-off for the suspense file. According to the Assembly's rules, Fuentes was required to send the legislation to the suspense file once it reached that dollar amount, said Fuentes' spokesman Ben Golombek.
LaMar said the committee settled upon a higher figure than the Senate and Finance estimates by factoring the actual cost of experts reporting their final work to three separate legislative committees.
Corbett's office questions the accuracy of those calculations, however, and to date, the committee has not provided any data or documentation that would support Rodriguez's conclusions.
“I am disappointed the Assembly Appropriations Committee did not approve this legislation," Corbett told California Watch. "I think we showed clearly that the costs associated were minimal, and below the committee’s threshold, and the issue important enough to require the additional oversight called for."
Rodriguez didn't respond to questions from California Watch.
After the bill was killed, State Architect Chester Widom said in an interview with California Watch that he and his staff are working to fix the agency's problems. Widom has put together his own panel of experts that will meet regularly to explore reforms, he said. He also is planning widespread staff training sessions to change the culture at the regulatory agency.
"We're really making significant changes in the way we're operating," Widom said. "I can't go back and tell you what happened before. I just want to deal with going forward. And I want to deal with how we're going to try to clean up what happened in the past."
In addition, Widom wants a revamped inspection process that would prevent construction work from progressing before all safety requirements have been met. Staff is still refining the idea, but so far Widom's suggestion has been welcomed by architects, school officials and the construction industry, he said.
By the end of last month, more than 9,000 schools received letters from the office asking for documents needed to certify their buildings as safe, Widom said.
At Widom's request, state engineers have visited about 106 schools flagged by inspectors as potentially unsafe. About 50 still have unresolved issues, but the work is continuing, Widom said.
This story was produced by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at http://californiawatch.org.