Seismic Evaluations for Private and Independent Schools: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Dec 23, 2014 05:14 PM

Seismic awareness is demanding attention across California.  In January 2014, the California Geological Survey released preliminary maps identifying previously undiscovered fault lines running beneath several neighborhoods in the City of Hollywood. In September 2014, the City and County of San Francisco passed a comprehensive seismic evaluation mandate for all private and independent schools. The new law requires all San Francisco-based private and independent schools to conduct a seismic evaluation within the next three years. Although the new law does not require schools to retrofit, issues of liability will be raised for any school found to be seismically unsafe.

This renewed focus on the seismic safety of California's private K-12 schools has many administrators, heads of schools, and board members assessing their obligations.

Those familiar with private school building safety may be wondering, "Don't we already have a law on the books that protects private school children from unsafe buildings?" The answer may surprise you. California did enact the Private Schools Buildings Safety Act ("PSBSA") in 1996 after the Northridge quake, but there is more to the story. Education Code section 17322 provides students attending private and independent schools life and safety protections similar to students attending public schools (The 1933 Field Act protects students attending public school).  To that end, city and county building departments are required to review building designs and inspect the construction, reconstruction, structural alterations, or additions to any private school in order to ensure compliance with state law.  (Ed. Code section 17324.)

But the truth is: a surprising number of city and county building departments do not seem to enforce the law or are so backlogged that enforcement does not actually exist.  This may leave private school operators wondering how to get out in front of the curve on seismic safety.

Deciding whether to conduct a seismic evaluation is just the tip of iceberg.  What happens if the seismic evaluation indicates a need to retrofit?  Are you required to comply?  Must you make the findings of the study public?  Is the school liable for any injury resulting from an earthquake if it did not conduct an evaluation?  The answers to these questions may expose a school to fines, closure, and most importantly – risk children's safety.

State law does not mandate seismic retrofitting for private and independent schools, but local ordinances may impose similar requirements.  In Los Angeles County, in some circumstances owners must retrofit any building improperly anchored or built with unreinforced masonry.  Any seismic evaluation must be filed with the County, along with the plans and specifications for repair.  In the City and County of San Francisco, the new law also does not mandate retrofitting, but does require the school submit the results of a seismic evaluation.  Once a seismic evaluation is filed with the City and County, retrofit seems the obvious next step for any responsible institution issues will need to be more formally considered.

In 2004, the California Seismic Safety Commission established a Committee to determine and report on seismic safety issues affecting private K-12 schools. The Committee issued a report in December 2004 recommending the Legislature amend the PSBSA to require all private and independent schools to comply with either the Field Act or relevant local ordinances pertaining to earthquake safety within a specific period.  Although the California Geological Survey has not formalized its new fault maps and so far, the Legislature has not moved to amend the PSBSA, the Los Angeles Times has twice run stories in the past year questioning the need for change.  The Legislature is likely not far behind.

If you think your institution needs a seismic evaluation, you're probably right.  It may be more prudent to act now before any legislative mandate.  Seismic evaluations are not cheap, but most run between $5,000 and $20,000.  If the evaluation suggests retrofit, it may be better to know sooner so that you have more opportunity to set the pace of repairs and budget appropriately.  Be sure to check your local regulations before undertaking any designs or repairs and contact the City or County building department about complying with the PSBSA.

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