Red tape removed, districts get in line for state seismic repair funding

While state funding for new school construction is virtually gone, a pot of money to help districts repair or replace earthquake-prone buildings has sat mostly unused for the past six years.

But in the last 11 months, the number of projects seeking eligibility for the state's Seismic Mitigation Program has nearly tripled - a direct response to the State Allocation Board's approval last year of regulatory changes to the rules governing access to the funds.

According to the Office of Public School Construction, a total of 169 school buildings have now been identified as being eligible to seek a share of the program's $199.5 million, approved by voters in 2006 as part of Proposition 1D.

Broadening the eligibility criteria did increase participation," OPSC executive director Lisa Silverman reported to State Allocation Board members last week. "The program is, in effect, working, or at least moving projects forward."

Among the criteria for accessing the state funds is that the building be occupied and that an engineer has certified that it has "structural deficiencies that pose an unacceptable risk of injury to its occupants in a seismic event."

School districts, according to the Department of State Architect, are not required by law to replace or repair at-risk buildings. Participation in the Seismic Mitigation Program is voluntary.

Between 2006 and 2011, only three projects were funded under the program for a total of $4.7 million. Now, there are five project applications from three school districts under review by the OPSC. The total cost to the state for these projects is $18.7 million.

Districts that own the 169 buildings determined to be eligible for state funding must now decide whether they want to repair or replace those structures, depending on cost and their ability to meet the 50-50 fund matching requirement.

In some cases where a district doesn't have the money but doesn't want to chance liability in case of a disaster, the LEA may choose to simply abandon the building. In other cases, they continue to use the building as is.

In her report to the SAB, Silverman noted that a team of OPSC and DSA staff recently visited school sites in two Imperial County districts damaged by a series of quakes there Aug. 26.

No injuries occurred but Brawley school officials were forced to close a performance auditorium after an inspection found serious structural damage. Silverman said staff encouraged both districts to begin the DSA's eligibility determination process.

Until a district decides to proceed with either repair or replacement, staff said, the state has no way of knowing what the draw-down to the seismic mitigation funds would be.

If a district chooses to repair or replace a facility, construction plans and other documents must be submitted to the state architect's office for approval. Once that takes place, then the district can submit an application to OPSC for qualifying funds from the Seismic Mitigation Program.

Of the five projects currently under review by the OPSC, three are rehabilitation plans in the Oakland Unified School District totaling almost $4.5 million in state funds. Piedmont Unified, another Alameda County school district, is seeking just under $1.5 million for a repair project, while West Contra Costa Unified in Contra Costa County is replacing a facility with a state share of $12.7 million.

The communications department at the Department of State Architect was unable to provide the list of the 169 SMP-eligible structures in time for today's publication.