Seismic safety report questioned by locals

Photo: John Muir Elementary was initially given a Letter 4 certification because seismic safety issues were suspected, but was later changed.
Breanna Alexander/Staff
John Muir Elementary was initially given a Letter 4 certification because seismic safety issues were suspected, but was later changed.

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Despite a recent report that revealed up to 10 schools in the Berkeley Unified School District may house structurally unsound buildings, district administrators and parents remain confident in the seismic safety of their school buildings.

The nearly two-year research conducted by watchdog reporting group California Watch looked into the Division of the State Architect - the office charged with regulating the construction of California's K-12 schools and community colleges - and its ability to maintain structurally sound public schools. Due to the division's sometimes overwhelming jurisdiction, some schools' safety issues have been overlooked.

According to Lew Jones, the facilities director for the district, the DSA's lengthy turnaround time leads to neglecting the certification for buildings that are in line with the Field Act, California's public school seismic safety law.

"Often times DSA will lose paperwork or need some relatively minor piece of paper that has not been submitted," Jones said. "DSA's closeout time is six months time. Every school district is frustrated with the pace of DSA, and honestly DSA is frustrated themselves."

Two Berkeley schools - John Muir Elementary and Thousand Oaks Elementary - are listed as having buildings that were originally given Letter 4 certifications, meaning the DSA suspected safety issues when reviewing the plans. These classifications were changed March 2010 to Letter 3 because the division did not have the paperwork to prove seismic safety concerns.

The John Muir building in question is the auditorium, which has an accessibility lift for handicapped use of the stage that Jones said may have a minor paperwork issue. He added that the Letter 3 building at Thousand Oaks was demolished in 1989 when the entire campus was rebuilt following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Eight other schools had buildings suspected by the division to be potentially risky in the case of an earthquake. These buildings were put on the AB 300 list to be gauged by the DSA for necessary repairs.

"The DSA knows they're behind ... I've been notified on a project 10 or 15 years later, and they'll say what's missing is the final affidavit of the inspector," Jones said. "My problem with the AB 300 list is that there are projects on there that are seismically problematic when in fact the building has been retrofitted, and they haven't looked at it."

He added that all but two structures in the district have been properly retrofitted in coordination with a 1991 inspection done by a structural engineer. The only remaining buildings are the Berkeley High School gymnasium and connecting bridge between buildings G and H - both of which are on track to be rebuilt in 2012.

This district-wide project aimed at ensuring structural soundness is funded by a combination of Measures A and AA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state, Jones said.

Once these projects are completed, district spokesperson Mark Coplan said the district will begin retrofitting the administrative buildings that do not have classrooms. Jones said the money for these projects will come from Measure I - a $210 million bond which passed last November.

"All the projects we've done meet the current seismic standards and have been inspected," Superintendent Bill Huyett. "We can work with DSA to have the projects to complete in their mind. School districts are very contentious. The state has been unable to close those things out. That's an issue they're trying to catch up on."

Some parents whose children attend BUSD schools are in agreement with district administrators, saying they trust the structural soundness of the schools, despite the DSA neglecting proper certification.

"One of my kids goes to Thousand Oaks," said Julie Hayes, mother of two and former auditor of the Berkeley Parent Teacher Association. "I feel pretty confident that that was built to the appropriate standards."


Contact Kate Randle at [email protected]

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