Bill Savidge, engineering officer for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, recently appraised a structurally unsound, circa-1957 three-story school in the Richmond hills that he said is 1,000 yards from the dangerous Hayward fault.
Adams Middle School, with 900 students, is on a state inventory of nearly 8,000 older school buildings that engineers say are prone to collapse during a major quake. It lacks even a complete shear wall, a basic seismic safety structure that absorbs some of the force of a quake.
"This is our next priority," Savidge said.
But he's frustrated that it doesn't qualify for a still-untapped $199.5 million state fund for school retrofits. "It's quite upsetting for us," he said.
When voters in 2006 approved Proposition 1D, a $10.4 billion school construction bond, $199.5 million was set aside to es-
tablish the state's first fund dedicated to paying for seismic retrofits at public schools.
First in line were districts with structures on the state inventory of seismically vulnerable buildings.
But two years later, not a dime has been spent to move thousands of students and their teachers into modern classrooms designed to survive even severe shaking, or shore up existing school structures with steel anchors and braces.
"That's one of the biggest stories out there," Savidge added.
Other Bay Area school administrators with older seismically vulnerable buildings were dismayed as well at the challenge in qualifying for the money. The funds will be awarded based on a U.S. Geological Survey system assessing hazard risk from a quake.
"We're still trying to figure out how we have a school identified by the state (as a collapse hazard) and sitting within a half mile from the Hayward fault, and still not qualify," said Jerry Macy, deputy superintendent of the Castro Valley Unified School District.
Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, fell silent for a moment when learning that none of the $199.5 million from Proposition 1D that she'd maneuvered to set aside for school retrofits was in use.
"I'm just shocked that money hasn't moved into the hands of school districts to do retrofit work," Corbett said.
Later that day, an aide to Corbett — who heads the Senate Select Committee on Earthquakes and Disaster Preparedness — said the state senator will hold a committee hearing in November to investigate why the funds haven't been disbursed.
The Office of Public School Construction will award money from the $199.5 million retrofit fund. Rob Cook, executive officer of the state agency, said guidelines for applying for the funds were finished April 30, which focused on directing the money to the buildings at greatest risk.
Cook said, "$199.5 million is not much when you're getting into construction costs."
"We wanted to make sure we were taking care of the worst first," he said.
But when designated state funds remain unused, it can make it nearly impossible to ask voters for a bigger sum next time, said Tom Duffy, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Adequate School Housing.
And there's no debate that more is needed.
The concern centers on the 2002 inventory of close to 8,000 school buildings — about 1,000 of them in the Bay Area — that were built between 1933 and 1978. These were deemed at risk of collapse during a major earthquake and urgently in need of evaluation. If they fail the review, districts need to either retrofit or demolish the buildings. In 1978, the state bolstered the building code for public schools with many seismic safety protections, so structures built since then are exempt from the list. Because of the 1933 Field Act, California schools are also built to higher seismic safety standards than other buildings.
The older school buildings of concern are generally made of concrete with inadequate steel reinforcements or with weak roof-to-wall connections, or both. The buildings are at risk for wall or roof collapse during a major earthquake, or columns that tumble over, as earthquakes have proved.
"The buildings on this list are vulnerable to sustaining significant damage during an earthquake," wrote State Architect David Thorman, in an e-mail. Thorman heads the Division of the State Architect, which oversees school construction.
The state fund will only put a nick in an estimated $9 billion price tag for retrofitting or replacing the older school structures that are deemed deficient.
But the $199.5 million, when used, will spell safety for thousands more students during the inevitable earthquakes that rock California, with its more than 1,000 known faults.
And loosening up the state funds will give a boost of confidence to school districts that commit to a thorough seismic review of their buildings. Many district chiefs describe the dilemma of discovering a serious, potentially life-threatening deficiency in buildings they can't afford to fix.
"There is some uneasiness," said Savidge, of knowing a few of his campuses serving many hundreds of students, as well as staff, are vulnerable. Bond money approved by local voters, however, paid for new, seismically sturdy campuses elsewhere in his district, such as a magnificent 20,000-square-foot campus under construction at El Cerrito High School. There just wasn't enough for all the schools.
"It's hard for districts to look at the problem," agreed Lew Jones, director of facilities and maintenance with the Berkeley Unified School District. "You've bought liability without having a solution." Berkeley voters approved bond measures that paid for complete retrofits or rebuilding of almost all the buildings on district campuses — a $300 million project — although the district embarked on the effort without the security of bond money.
"We issued debt in order to move forward very quickly," Jones said.
When faced with the news that some of his school buildings were on the list, however, the superintendent of the Moraga School District in Contra Costa County decided to forgo evaluating the buildings, including several "concrete tilt-up" structures that are among the most seismically hazardous.
"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," said Rick Schafer, the superintendent. "Something built to code is now out of compliance, and we've got no funding to do anything about this."
But that's not a valid reason to avoid a seismic review, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland stated in a news release issued after the May 12 earthquake in China, which killed 10,000 students inside collapsed classrooms. Some California schools, the institute stressed, aren't immune from building collapses during major quakes.
"Ignorance is not bliss," the statement said.
And only 10 percent of the state's 1,052 school districts have requested the state inventory, according to a spokesman with the state architect's office.
Part of the reason, however, is reflected in the fact that several districts surveyed for this article were unaware of the list. Liberty Union High School District in Brentwood, for example, learned of the list through a 2003 Contra Costa Times article. Three districts on the Peninsula, which is sliced through by the San Andreas fault, only learned of it through this newspaper's recent inquiries.
The state, for reasons no government official can or will explain, prohibited the inclusion of school names when the report was issued. Instead, districts must ask the state for the list, stated a 2003 letter sent by the Division of the State Architect to every district in the state, a step that may explain part of the poor participation by districts.
Last week, the agency began sending letters again to every district, reminding them of the list, Thorman added.
But several Bay Area district administrators also described a "head-in-the-sand" mentality that contributes to the low number of districts requesting the list.
"The challenge is if you ask the question, what do you do with the information?" said Therese Gain, director of facilities management for the Fremont Unified School District. "Our answer was to go out to the public for a health and safety bond."
Her district's campuses boast numerous retrofits. But she, too, said the state qualifications for the $199.5 million in funding were "so restrictive we don't qualify."
"That was a good bill that was passed," said Leland Noll, an administrative director with the Alameda City Unified School District, speaking of the legislation creating the seismic safety inventory of public schools.
"As soon as something is identified, you're liable to take care of it," Noll said. And it helps districts get "first in line" for funding, he added.
"That's a great position to be in," Noll said. "So hiding your head in the sand isn't the way to get these problems resolved."