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The state has made it virtually impossible for school districts to access a pot of money set aside for urgent seismic repairs on more than 7,500 school buildings that have been listed for nearly a decade as potentially unsafe, records and interviews show.

Five years ago, California voters approved more than $10 billion in bonds for school construction, carving out nearly $200 million to shore up the state's seismically unsafe school buildings. The list included more than 70 Sonoma County buildings spread over 12 districts and more than 30 schools.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger boasted that it was the first time the state had earmarked money specifically to improve earthquake safety in schools.

But the need was far greater to fix these buildings — $4.7 billion.

As the Schwarzenegger administration decided how to dole out a limited amount of money, it worried about a rush on the funding, according to internal emails and memos obtained by California Watch. The concern prompted the administration to set a high bar for schools to qualify.

Instead of thousands of schools vying for the money, about three dozen buildings — at school districts in Humboldt, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Alameda, Los Angeles and San Benito counties — met the requirements. A subsequent analysis for the Office of Public School Construction reduced the number of qualified schools even further — to just 20 buildings in the state.

To date, only two schools have accessed the fund. San Ramon Valley High School is using $3.6 million to build a new gym, and Piedmont High School is taking $1 million for two renovation projects.

Mary Lou Zoback, a former research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and vice president at Risk Management Solutions, which advises the insurance industry on catastrophe risk, said she was appalled at the restrictive rules.

"They have created a bureaucratic process all about dollars and cents rather than potentially about kids' lives," said Zoback, adding that her interpretation of the rules would exclude nearly the entire state from funding, including the San Francisco Peninsula.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who spearheaded the effort in 2002 to create an inventory of the state's most vulnerable school buildings, also said she was surprised the administration had so severely limited access to the repair money. Corbett now wants to hold legislative hearings on the matter to find out what happened.

"If we're doing something that puts children at risk, it's unacceptable," she said.

Officials with Santa Rosa City Schools, the local district with the most buildings on the list, said strictures on the fund prevented them from even applying for it.

But Doug Bower, associate superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, said the district has funded millions of dollars of work in the past 15 years to upgrade schools.

The Santa Rosa district had 18 buildings on the list at five schools: Brook Hill Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Comstock Elementary, Montgomery High and Santa Rosa High.

Bower said those schools were safe according to all standards in place when the work was done on them. He said the district would work with state officials to remove them from the list of potentially unsafe schools.

The bond money remains unspent amid massive budget shortfalls.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance under Schwarzenegger and the current governor, Jerry Brown, said he doesn't believe the office made any mistakes in calculating the number of schools that would qualify for the bond money. The formula was based on information the administration had at the time, he said.

"We at the Department of Finance have been continually pushing for improved criteria that would provide opportunities for more school districts to be eligible for funds," Palmer said.

Palmer acknowledged that the limited amount of money available for seismic repairs factored into the administration's decisions about the stringent standards.

After the 2006 bond measure was approved, the Schwarzenegger administration worried about how to categorize the buildings. Among the fears: classifying too many buildings as "most vulnerable" would cause panic and lead to calls to close schools. The administration outlined its concerns in a May 1, 2007, "Governor's Office Action Request," sent by the Department of General Services and the State and Consumer Services Agency.

Their solution was a detailed formula that weighed the expected cost of repairs against the intensity of earthquakes predicted around those vulnerable schools. Money would "drive the criteria," according to the document. "The State will likely receive considerable criticism from school districts and their communities because some at-risk school buildings will not qualify for this funding."

In the end, the science was made to conform to the budget.

The Division of the State Architect — the chief regulator of public school construction — had recommended a lower amount of ground-shaking intensity to enable more schools to qualify for the money. But Schwarzenegger's office was persuaded by the Department of Finance's argument for a much higher mark, records show.

"Care must be taken to define vulnerable buildings in a way that does not over-expose the state to funding beyond the funds provided," stated a June 14, 2007, internal memo at the Department of Finance.

These changes in the criteria prompted alarm at the state Seismic Safety Commission.

An internal email from August 2007, written by a top commission official, quotes then-Chairman Gary McGavin, a school architect, warning that the restrictive standards "leave a LOT of vulnerable Collapse Hazard Public School Buildings" and that "some modern buildings ... might suffer significant damage even with the code reductions."

The state architect's office had originally pushed for a 1.35g intensity level — or the measure of ground shaking likely to damage a one- to three-story building.

The Schwarzenegger administration eventually settled on areas that could expect ground movement of at least 1.7g — more powerful, Zoback said, than the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 and the Northridge quake in 1994. The administration also restricted the types of buildings that could qualify for money.

In Long Beach, where more than 100 people died in a quake that spawned the 1933 Field Act, the decision was baffling.

School official Carri Matsumoto wrote to the Office of Public School Construction, which administers bond funds, to complain that all 31 schools in her district had been rejected, including five high schools with buildings on the list of potentially seismically unsafe facilities.

Ending her letter, she requested that the regulations be changed to "ensure that a future seismic event does not again devastate our schools." Matsumoto declined to comment.

Faced with district complaints about the program, the state decided to slightly loosen the rules to make it somewhat easier for schools to access the money.

At an August 2009 meeting, the state architect's office and the Department of Finance won approval for rules that reduced the ground-shaking figure from 1.7g to 1.68g. The state also added more types of buildings — including those with precast concrete frames — that could qualify for seismic repair funds.

In practical terms, the numbers do not change much. State officials said last week that only a handful of additional buildings, on top of the existing 20 buildings, would now qualify for funding.

And in late March, after California Watch began questioning the formula for funding, the State Allocation Board, which controls funding for school districts, created a subcommittee to study ways to create "greater accessibility" to the Seismic Mitigation Program. Its first public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

Staff Writer Sam Scott contributed to this report.

Contact Corey Johnson at cjohnson@californiawatch.org.

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