Special Report: SD Schools Flagged For Earthquake Risks Left Unchecked
The original version of this story said 320 buildings in San Diego County had been flagged. However, the state included some buildings in multiple school districts or the wrong ones, pushing the figure down to 301 total buildings. The story has been updated.
KPBS news assistant Neiko Will contributed to this report.
Nearly a decade ago, state experts flagged thousands of school buildings that might be vulnerable in an earthquake. Engineers cautioned school districts that more inspections were needed to tell if the buildings were in trouble.
What We Found
Nearly a decade after state experts flagged hundreds of school buildings for possible earthquake risks, only about 100 of the 301 San Diego County school buildings on the list have been reviewed, repaired or demolished.
What It Means
Children go to school in roughly 200 buildings across the county where earthquake safety is still an unanswered question, the result of a long string of shortcomings in how California and its school districts have handled seismic safety.
The Back Story
Experts scrutinized blueprints for school buildings built before 1978, when building codes were beefed up, and identified those with potential problems. The state then told school districts that the only way to find out for sure whether the buildings were hazardous was to get them inspected by a structural engineer.
The state lagged in getting the information to school districts and offered schools little money to help with inspections and repairs.
Some school districts never got their buildings examined, however, even after they learned they could be at risk. Some failed to do inspections even though they had money to spend on other renovations.
About This Project
California Watch, a statewide investigative reporting group, first exposed these and other problems with how California ensures its schools can weather earthquakes. VOSD and KPBS teamed up to find out how schools here had followed up on the earthquake safety concerns voiced by the state.
Tune into KPBS 89.5 FM on Thursday and Friday at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. to hear the two-part radio report. And watch an interview with KPBS' Kyla Calvert on KPBS-TV’s “San Diego Week” at 8 p.m. Friday.
But here in San Diego County, many of those inspections never happened. Only about 100 of the 301 school buildings countywide that raised concerns have been reviewed, repaired or demolished.
That means that children go to school in about 200 buildings across the county where earthquake safety is still an unanswered question, the result of a long string of shortcomings in how California and its school districts have handled seismic safety.
Roughly half of those buildings are in South Bay Union School District. It passed a $59 million bond three years ago to upgrade fire alarms, renovate restrooms, ensure schools are accessible to the disabled and make other repairs. Yet it has not checked nearly 100 buildings for seismic safety.
Officials there say they weren't ignoring the issue. They didn’t know it existed. By the time South Bay found out about the state list, the school district had already promised its millions to other projects instead.
The same pattern has played out in several other school districts across San Diego County.
Just because a building is on the state list does not mean it is dangerous. State experts didn’t have the money to scrutinize schools in person, so they combed through blueprints to sort out schools that might be at risk based simply on the kind of construction. They focused on schools built before California beefed up its building codes in 1978.
State experts ultimately flagged more than 7,500 structures - 14 percent of school building space statewide - for possible problems. The state advised the districts that the only way to know for sure whether those buildings were hazardous was an in-depth inspection by a structural engineer.
Those that have sought inspections found everything from perfectly sound structures to classrooms that had to be vacated. Grossmont Union High School District cleared students out of classrooms that engineers feared would be damaged or collapse.
San Diego Unified, Carlsbad, Chula Vista and Encinitas schools have inspected, demolished or repaired all their schools on the list. Other school districts have inspected some of them. Still others have not checked out any of those schools at all. Some are not even sure which buildings they should be inspecting.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the inaction: California offered very little money to help schools inspect and repair the buildings. The state and its lawmakers lagged in getting the information to school districts. And simple mistakes stopped schools from finding out that their buildings could be at risk, like schools being listed in the wrong districts.
Yet some school districts never examined their buildings even after they learned they could be at risk. Nobody made schools follow up on the troubling list. And while many complained that money was tight, some failed to do inspections despite spending money on other school renovations.
California Watch, a statewide investigative reporting group, first exposed these and other problems with how California ensures its schools can weather earthquakes. KPBS and voiceofsandiego.org teamed up to find out how schools here had followed up on the earthquake safety concerns voiced by the state.
Carlsbad Unified, for example, jumped into action this summer. Engineers cut away wallboard to check the distance between bolts, something that could impact how firmly the walls are anchored to the foundation. They measured the thickness of the steel that props up and strengthens concrete walls.
Carlsbad Superintendent John Roach gazed around empty locker rooms where middle schoolers change before gym class.
"If kids are coming in this building and I have to worry if they’re safe every day --" Roach stopped in the middle of his thought. "I’d rather worry about something else."
In the seaside burg of Encinitas, the gym and the locker rooms at San Dieguito Academy landed on the earthquake list. So did a building used for industrial arts.
None of those three buildings have been inspected by engineers for seismic safety.
The San Dieguito Union High School District believes that its schools fall on the safer side of the earthquake list. Associate Superintendent Eric Dill points out that their Encinitas location is not close to an active fault or in an area where soil is likely to act like quicksand during a quake.
Engineers interviewed for this story said those kinds of buildings should still be inspected to make sure their walls are tied strongly enough to the roof to stop them from separating during a quake.
Dill said the district is tentatively planning to replace the buildings, but not because of any earthquake worries. And even if San Dieguito had inspected the buildings, Dill said, they couldn’t have gotten state money to fix them.
School districts gave a long list of reasons why they had never checked on their buildings. The biggest one is the almighty dollar: Though some districts found ways to pay for repairs by seeking more money from local voters, others argued there was just not enough money to tackle inspections and repairs.
California estimated it would cost almost $4.7 billion to repair all the schools on the list statewide, but lawmakers only allotted $200 million for it.
Then the state set the bar so high that fewer than two dozen buildings were even eligible to apply for the funds. None were in San Diego County. The state loosened those rules this summer in the wake of California Watch reports.
Engineers say inspections could range from $15,000 to $25,000 a building, though costs hinge on many factors. The repairs they trigger could be much more expensive. Grossmont Union High School District, for example, found out that fixing its district offices would cost $450,000.
Several school districts said they were loath to embark on inspections if there might not be money to actually fix the problems that turn up.
"If there was funding, I think there would be more schools forthcoming," said Ali Sadre, a structural engineer and former member of the state seismic safety commission, which investigates earthquakes and recommends policies to reduce seismic risk.
But money was not always the problem. Some local school districts had millions to spend on other repairs and renovations at the same time that some of their buildings have been left uninspected.
South Bay Union School District had more uninspected buildings on the list than any other local school district.
It says it didn't hear that some of its buildings could be at risk until three years ago. When it found out, it was too late. The school district, which covers elementary schools in Nestor and Imperial Beach, had already promised voters that it would spend $59 million in bond money on other things.
Its plight underscores another reason that many school districts give for not inspecting their buildings: They got too little information about the possible problems or they got it too late. School districts complained that the state lagged in getting them information and argued it did not spell out clearly enough what they should do. The state countered that it was up to schools to decide.
School districts got their first inkling of the issue eight years ago. California sent them a letter saying an analysis found that thousands of school buildings should get a second look to see if they needed retrofits.
But it didn’t tell them which schools might be at risk. There was a reason: The analysis suffered from some errors because engineers sometimes missed later repairs. Lawmakers and state officials feared that airing all the school names, errors and all, would send parents into a panic.
So school districts had to ring up the state to find out which buildings might be at risk. Very few made the call.
State experts say the inventory was just meant to give California lawmakers an idea of how many schools might need repairs.
"It was never intended to be a tool to force or require school districts to conduct retrofits," said Eric Lamoureux, spokesman for the California Division of the State Architect, which oversees school construction.
Bruising headlines like "Quake alert goes unheard" led the state to follow up with school districts three years ago. This time it told them which buildings could be at risk and sent them a checklist, asking whether the buildings had been inspected, demolished or fallen out of use.
"It is being resent to remind Superintendents of the importance of examining seismically sensitive structures," the letter to school districts explained.
At the Cajon Valley Union School District, facilities director James Beard remembers reading that second letter. It didn’t say that schools had to do anything. It just seemed like paperwork, he said.
"They weren’t saying there was an issue. They weren’t saying there wasn’t," Beard said. So his district did the same thing many others did: It just sent back the paperwork saying it had done nothing.
The district did not get an engineer to examine six flagged buildings at Chase and Meridian elementary schools, even though it had just borrowed roughly $156 million for school renovations and upgrades. Beard said the school district plans to give those buildings an extensive review by next spring.
Escondido Union High School District got $98 million in bond money starting three years ago to build science labs and make other improvements. Yet three of its buildings at San Pasqual High School have not been examined by engineers.
"I don’t want to drop a couple million dollars on something that just might be," Assistant Superintendent Barry Dragon said. He couldn’t remember getting the letter. "If somebody had said, ‘You have unsafe buildings,’ this school district would have stopped the train immediately."
All three of the San Pasqual High buildings had been modernized or got additions with the state's blessing. Many school districts pointed to similar modernizations as proof that buildings were fine.
But building experts say that modernizing does not necessarily mean a building meets current earthquake safety standards, since upgrades and additions can fall short of retrofitting the whole building.
Some things that stopped school districts from learning about the buildings were utterly mundane: VOSD and KPBS found several schools listed in the wrong districts, which meant the right district never found out that a potential problem existed.
And some small school districts are not even sure which of their buildings are on the list, saying they can’t match up the state documents to their records. Borrego Springs could not locate its own building plans. Ramona Unified and La Mesa-Spring Valley officials said they were unsure if the buildings still existed.
"We continue to believe that any buildings that might have been identified nine years ago were demolished, rebuilt, or upgraded," Ramona Superintendent Bob Graeff wrote in an email. He added, "Parents and staff in our community have every right to believe that our schools are safe."
Some districts did not provide answers by deadline. Sweetwater Union High School District and Lakeside Union School District did not answer questions from VOSD and KPBS.
When an earthquake hit Calexico last April, wide slabs of paneling fell from awnings at Jefferson Elementary. Some fell so forcefully that they knocked knobs off doors.
"I couldn’t believe the damage that had been done," Principal Lucio Padilla said.
Former Superintendent Christina Luna fears that if children had been there, they could have gotten hurt under those awnings.
Those buildings at Jefferson were on the state list. It is a vivid example of how California schools -- long seen as the gold standard of seismic safety -- can still be impacted by a quake. State records show that as of last February, Jefferson had not undergone an in-depth review.
Parents should be concerned about whether or not these buildings are safe, said Chris Rojahn, executive director of Applied Technology Council, a nonprofit that researches construction. They were built before major changes in building codes. Those changes were based on lessons learned from the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake, which revealed that buildings thought to be safe were not.
School districts rooted out some serious problems when they conducted inspections. San Diego Unified decided to retrofit parts of Morse High School after an engineer found that some roof-to-wall ties in the gymnasium were "suspect (or may be non-existent)." That means the roof did not seem to be as securely attached to the walls as engineers now believe it should be.
Other school buildings were found to be perfectly fine. Chula Vista Elementary School District is still using many buildings that were on the list after an engineer examined and approved them.
After California Watch reported on safety worries and other reporters started calling, more school districts are following their lead. Del Mar Union School District is planning its inspections now.
Carlsbad Unified just wrapped up its reviews. And Vista Unified is exploring how much it might cost to inspect the only building it has left on the list -- the concrete-walled gymnasium at Vista High.
"I really didn’t know anything about this before," Assistant Superintendent Donna Caperton said. "We decided that we’d better find out."