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Audit: 'Oversight' in School Quake Safety

The state report concludes that the Division of the State Architect has limited authority to penalize school districts where buildings don't comply with safety law, but recommends changes.

Editor's Note: This article is a follow-up to a series of stories published in April, when Patch partnered with to report on earthquake safety in California public schools. 

The grades weren't high when a California State Auditor’s report found that some officials have failed to ensure the safety of school buildings if a big earthquake were to shake the West.

The report, which was released Thursday, also found that the Division of the State Architect has limited authority to penalize school districts for not complying with the Field Act (the state's earthquake safety law for schools), according to California Watch, a group of journalists focused on investigative reporting in the state.

"The [Division of the State Architect] inconsistently used its authority to order districts to stop work on projects after identifying a potential threat to public safety," said the California State Auditor's report. "The division did not effectively document its determinations about the risk level of uncertified projects or to use these determinations to guide its approach to following up on those projects."

The state Auditor's report was called for in May after a 19-month California Watch investigation uncovered that the state had allowed some children and teachers to occupy buildings that were reported during construction to have possible safety hazards.

Around that same time, using data provided by California Watch and found that in 2002 were noted by the state as having structural deficiencies.

Yet, in the early 2000s, changes were made to both Hermosa View and Valley schools to improve each of their buildings' seismic infrastructure,  Business Manager Angela Jones told Patch in April.

Now the Red Cross has identified Hermosa Valley School to be a potential "disaster relief center" for community members to gather in case of an emergency, Jones said.

But for the rest of the state, auditors found about 23 percent of school construction projects completed during the last three fiscal years remain uncertified under the Field Act.

The state Auditor's report recommends to "pursue legislative changes to the Field Act that would prohibit occupancy in cases in which the division has identified significant safety concerns."

The report also recommends the Legislature to consider implementing additional penalties for school districts that do not provide all required documents for ensuring safety, as well as overall better enforcement and communication.

At the end of the report, it's noted that the state Department of General Services agreed with the recommendations and outlined steps the Division of the State Architect will take to implement them.

Just days before the Auditor's report was released, Gov. Jerry Brown had appointed Chester Widom as the new State Architect.

"I look forward to working closely with my staff at the Division of the State Architect, the Department of General Services, the legislature and other local leaders to make our state even more innovative, sustainable and efficient," Widom said in a statement last week. "We face many challenges, but my immediate priority is to carefully scrutinize and streamline the State Architect’s operations."

Read more about seismic school safety on Hermosa Beach Patch:

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