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California Watch has published a stunning series about earthquake safety in schools across the state. It’s a truly phenomenal piece of journalism, the kind of stuff that inspires me to work harder, dig deeper and ask tougher questions. Here were some of its key findings:

State regulators have routinely failed to enforce California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction. Top management with the Division of the State Architect – the chief regulator of school construction – for years did nothing about nearly 1,100 building projects that its own supervisors had red-flagged. Safety defects were logged and then filed away without follow-up from the state.

California law requires the state architect’s office to enforce the Field Act – seismic regulations enacted nearly 80 years ago. The law is considered a gold standard of school construction. It requires state oversight to assure professional engineering and quality control from the early design phase to the first day of classes.

These regulators are granted “the police power of the state” over the construction of public schools.

But over the last two decades, enforcement of the Field Act has been plagued with bureaucratic chaos, a California Watch investigation has found. Tens of thousands of children attend schools without the required Field Act certification.

The second story in the series focused on gaps in oversight that allowed inspectors who are cited for deficiencies to keep monitoring school construction jobs, highlighting a San Diego County school district:

As far as officials at the Rancho Santa Fe School District knew, Richard Vale had a reliable work history when they hired him in 2009 to inspect a top-to-bottom reconstruction of R. Roger Rowe Elementary and Middle School.

The Division of the State Architect had approved Vale to inspect public school and community college projects four years earlier, without ever checking his background. But Vale had been convicted of a felony in a construction safety case and fired from the inspector program in Los Angeles.

Prosecutors had in the early 1990s accused Vale of knowingly overlooking unsafe seismic anchors installed in the walls of numerous unreinforced masonry buildings throughout Los Angeles. He pleaded no contest to conspiracy to obstruct justice. Despite this, the state architect’s office allowed Vale to monitor the $37 million job in Rancho Santa Fe, a wealthy San Diego suburb. Contractors built a new performing arts center, music room, and technology and science labs. They replaced old portable classrooms with two-story buildings – revamping a campus now large enough for 850 students. … Vale declined interview requests, saying during a brief phone exchange that questions about his past had been “put to rest.” Others are not so sure.

“If they let this guy through, what else is going on out there that we don’t know about?” said Doug Devine, an inspector with the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, who assisted in the criminal investigation of Vale. “What other corners are they cutting? What other safety issues are being ignored?”

Other stories in the series focused on California officials shrinking its earthquake hazard zones under pressure from developers and real estate agents, and making it virtually impossible for schools to access money set aside for urgent seismic repairs.

I’m still sorting through all the amazing work they did, including this map of fault lines and liquefaction zones. Are there more questions that we could answer here in San Diego about this issue? Please let us know!

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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