California Watch Investigates Seismic Safety of Public K-12 Schools

Investigative team highlights the findings of its three-part series.

By California Watch

A team of California Watch reporters and researchers spent the last 19 months investigating how the state enforces the Field Act, a strict seismic safety law that is supposed to protect school children at public schools. Among the findings to be presented in a three-part series

  • At least 20,000 projects—from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms—were completed without receiving a final safety certification required by law. A California Watch analysis determined that roughly six out of every 10 public schools in the state have at least one building project that is not certified.

  • The state architect’s office has allowed building inspectors hired by school districts to work on complex and expensive jobs despite complaints of incompetence. Inspectors have been missing from construction sites at key moments and have been accused of filing false reports—but that has not stopped them from getting more work.

  • The state’s top regulators at times have appeared more concerned with caseload management than enforcing the Field Act. To clear caseloads, one state architect ordered what was dubbed “Close-O-Rama”—a mad dash to approve projects as Field Act safe. Even now, the state architect’s office has been reclassifying hundreds of projects as simply missing paperwork—without visiting the schools to verify if fixes were made.

  • A separate state seismic inventory created nearly a decade ago shows more than 7,500 older school buildings as potentially dangerous. But restrictive rules have prevented schools from accessing a special $200 million fund for seismic repairs. Only two have tapped the money. The vast majority of the buildings remain unfixed, and the money unused.

  • As the state architect’s office relaxed its oversight, the office became closely aligned with the industry it regulates. Government officials became dues-paying members of a lobbying group for school construction firms; mingled at conferences, golf tournaments and dinners; and briefed the lobbying group’s clients at monthly meetings. The state even told its employees that taxpayers would foot the bill for their membership dues.

  • The California Geological Survey redrew the state’s official earthquake hazard maps decades ago amid pressure from property owners, real estate agents and local government officials who feared property values would decline inside these seismic hot spots. As the maps shifted, some schools were located in hazard zones one day and out the next.

Related materials:

  • Interactive Map—Seismic dangers facing schools around California

  • React/Act—Get involved in the story and find out who to contact with questions. There are tips on preparedness, a list of frequently asked questions and a parents preparedness checklist.

  • Interactive Timeline—See how the 19-month investigation developed in an interactive timeline complete with video, documents and more.

  • Historical Map of CA earthquakes—See an interactive map of the history of California earthquakes since 1861, including their magnitudes, locations, and the damage caused.

California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, is a project of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.


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