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.