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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 | Though the state librarian is leaning toward extending a grant that could save the downtown schoobrary, backers of the project could face another hurdle in seeking freedom from strict requirements for building schools.

In an effort to build the project more quickly and cheaply, the school district said it wanted to consider seeking an exemption to the state law governing public school construction, a law put in place after a 1933 earthquake decimated schools. To avoid the law’s requirements, school officials are looking to an exemption typically used for schools in hospitals or jails.

But state officials say the exemption likely wouldn’t apply to the schoobrary, a joint city-school district project that would place 300 high school students on two floors of the planned downtown library.

The school construction law, known as the Field Act, contains an exemption for certain buildings that do not have to comply with the act’s requirements, which include meeting stricter earthquake standards and submitting to more thorough inspections.

The exemption applies to a building that is run by the city or county and used primarily for a non-educational reason — including, but not limited to “correctional” or “hospital” purposes. Such buildings wouldn’t not be considered schools subject to the Field Act if the educational use is “incidental to the primary purpose.”

The idea of adding a school to the long-planned downtown library was floated late last year as library supporters struggled to raise enough money to begin construction.

Officials with the Division of State Architect, which oversees school design and construction, said the schoobrary didn’t seem to fit that requirement of being “incidental” to the main purpose, though they cautioned that they couldn’t offer a final opinion without seeing plans for the project.

Craig Rush, regional manager of the division’s Southern California office, said that exemption would cover, for instance, to an educational program in a hospital housing severely disabled children. Another example, he said, might be a library with a great collection on a president that periodically fields visits from schoolchildren studying that president.

“To house a high school in a building doesn’t sound incidental,” Rush said.

The idea for the schoobrary was first floated just as the state library grant was slated to expire and library boosters had failed to raise enough money to start construction on the long-delayed building. In return for the space for the school, the school district is expected to contribute up to $20 million that had been set aside for a downtown school in a facilities bond that voters approved in November.

The city has petitioned California State Librarian Susan Hildreth to extend a $20 million grant for construction of the library. Though she has yet to send a formal response, Hildreth said in an interview Wednesday that she is leaning toward granting a short extension and setting a series of requirements and benchmarks that the city and district must meet.

“We certainly have some concerns about the capacity and the sustainability of the project,” Hildreth said, “but we can see the city and the school district appear to be making their best efforts to move that forward, so we hope we could work with them to support that project and get an answer as soon as possible about whether this project is feasible or not.”

The city and school district have been hashing out the details of a feasibility study that would determine how the building code the library was designed under deviates from the Field Act, and how much it would cost to make any needed changes. Last week, the city asked the school district to pick up most of the study’s $167,730 cost, but a majority of school board members have balked at paying more than the $20,000 they have already agreed to spend on the study.

School officials said they want to consider ways to avoid that cost — namely, by seeking an exemption to the Field Act.

The Field Act was made law in response to the Long Beach earthquake of 1933, which leveled 70 schools and caused major damage to 120 more. The state put in place a set of requirements meant to ensure schools would withstand natural disasters.

Thus, schools must be designed under more rigorous earthquake standards than other buildings. The Field Act also limits how irregular the shape of a building can be, which Rush said could be an issue for the schoobrary because it contains some “irregular” structures, though he could not cite specifics without looking at the plans.

The building materials — concrete, steel and masonry — are also tested more frequently and more stringently than for a non-Field Act building. Most significantly, the Field Act requires at least one trained, certified inspector to be on the construction site to inspect all the structural and architectural components of a building as they are put in place.

“The real teeth of the Field Act is not necessarily that the building has to be designed for a little higher (standard),” Rush said, “but that it has personal full-time inspection by a qualified inspector.”

The Field Act requirements are believed to raise a building’s price tag by about 5 percent, though there are no recent studies on the issue.

Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Division of the State Architect, said the division would likely work with officials from the California Department of Education and the State Allocation Board — which doles out state money for schools — to determine whether a project falls under an exemption to the Field Act.

Jim Watts, the school district’s director of asset planning and management, said the schoobrary will still be safe if it does not have to comply with the Field Act.

“When the Field Act was put in place, you didn’t have the structural codes you have in place today,” he said. “That’s going to be a safe building. It’s like anything — if you design it with an extra safety factor, it’s going to be an even safer building.”

The only other way the school district could get out from under the Field Act would be to get legislation passed exempting the building from the requirements.

In a letter sent last week to Mayor Jerry Sanders and forwarded to the state librarian, schools Superintendent Terry Grier said he and board President Shelia Jackson were interested in exploring the viability of “urgency legislation that would simultaneously ensure the safety of schoolchildren and facilitate timely construction of the project.”

The letter states that such a law could be justified by the current economic situation and the “numbers of jobs and future economic development this project would generate.”

California Department of Education officials said Wednesday that they didn’t know offhand of any situations in which a district had secured legislation exempting a school from the Field Act.

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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