SAB adopts new seismic funding criteria, hopes to prompt school upgrades

The State Allocation Board on Wednesday made sweeping changes to the eligibility criteria for the Seismic Mitigation Program, a move intended to finally open nearly $200 million in earthquake repair funds that have languished for five years.

Districts can now access the money if a licensed structural engineer reports that their building has a potential for catastrophic collapse" using a variety of factors. That report must be ratified by state officials at the Division of the State Architect.

It is unknown whether this will cause a run on the funds, however, because districts have also complained that there remain major challenges in providing interim student housing and meeting the requirement that districts must put up matching funds for a seismic upgrade.

At Wednesday's hearing, the board defeated a motion to provide additional housing funds. State officials also reported that the allocation board cannot legally change the matching funds requirement.

Still, board members said they were grateful that the new eligibility criteria will now accommodate a variety of issues unique to different schools, including whether the building is located on a fault zone.

"You do need to take a look at each school and its own conditions with the type of construction and all the factors that are unique to that site where the school was constructed," said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, at the hearing.

The former seismic criteria were based on the degree to which a building shakes during an earthquake - known as the spectral response acceleration.

Some board members and officials from the Department of Finance criticized the new criteria for breaking away from the old formula that was established with the help of the state Seismic Safety Commission.

Another expressed concern was that the new criteria is more subjective and can make districts liable for unsafe buildings if the funding is gone by the time they submit the structural engineering report to the state.

Board member Pedro Reyes, chief deputy director for the Department of Finance, preferred an alternative proposal to gradually lower the spectral response acceleration with the hope that the money would first be accessed by districts with the most vulnerable school buildings.

Other board members were critical of that approach, noting that the funds have sat dormant since 2006 despite the fact that the criteria have been modified several times in the past.

Under the new criteria, the building must also be constructed with a variety of materials that are defined under "Category 2" on an existing list of the state's most vulnerable school buildings. That list is known as AB 300.

Next month, the board is expected to approve the final regulations that will enact the new criteria. There is $194.8 million remaining in the seismic program.