BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer
firstname.lastname@example.org | Friday, Apr 08 2011 10:00 PM
Last Updated Friday, Apr 08 2011 10:00 PM
Every day, hundreds of students occupy a building near the bluffs of northeast Bakersfield that's on a state list for being seismically risky -- Highland High School's Wesley Anderson Hall.
The reinforced masonry building -- used for lectures, drama classes and the occasional performance -- sits between two fault lines. It has yet to receive the official OK from inspectors saying the building is fit to stand up in an earthquake.
It's not the only school here on potentially shaky ground.
Throughout Kern County, 378 school projects are on the AB 300 list of buildings not expected to withstand future earthquakes and that are urgently in need of more structural evaluation to gauge needed repairs and how big an earthquake they could take.
Also scattered throughout Kern are dozens of school buildings completed with known, unresolved safety issues, according to records gathered by California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting team. Those socalled Letter 4 school buildings have received the highest warning from the Division of the State Architect.
Some of those also sit just several feet from fault lines.
As a result of California Watch's 19-month investigation, school officials here and throughout the state have been reviewing building records to assess how to get them up to code. They cite state bureaucratic red tape, miscommunication and ever-changing code requirements for lack of building certification.
But, they maintain, our schools are among the safest buildings in town.
"Do (some school buildings) meet earthquake codes. I have to tell you, "No," said Jack "Woody" Colvard, Kern High School District director of facilities planning, a 27-year veteran. "But our schools are absolutely safe. They're designed to be here when your house falls down."
Records gathered by California Watch showed that nearly 500 school buildings in Kern County were without Field Act certification in October, which are seismic regulations for schools enacted nearly 80 years ago.
Three-quarters of those -- 378 school buildings -- are on the AB 300 list. And of those, projects on seven local campuses are within a quarter-mile of a U.S. Geological Survey fault line, including Highland High and two Bakersfield City School District buildings: at Chipman Junior High and Eissler Elementary.
The rest are outside of Bakersfield.
A BCSD spokesman said the district is evaluating the buildings in the report to see whether any structural improvements are necessary.
The group also found nearly three dozen "Letter 4" school buildings in Kern, the most serious designation for school construction projects. Two of those schools are within the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act areas, which restricts construction on or near earthquake faults.
Those are Frazier Park Elementary in El Tejon Unified School District and Sierra Vista Education Center in Ridgecrest's Sierra Sands Unified School District.
El Tejon officials said they were unaware of Field Act discrepancies or the AB 300 list until California Watch brought up the issues. That's not limited to El Tejon or Kern County schools. California Watch reports have highlighted that enforcement of the Field Act has been plagued with "bureaucratic chaos" at local districts and the state level -- inadequate testing, poor communication, unapproved inspections and sloppy record keeping, among a long list of lax regulations.
"When we do the planning, we don't discuss Field Act," said Fernando Nieto, El Tejon director of maintenance, operations and transportation. "It doesn't come into our conversations. But we should be discussing it."
What is discussed, he said, are the countless, ever-changing requirements and construction codes school buildings must meet when they are built, Nieto said; even more so in El Tejon because they are close to the notorious San Andreas Fault.
When the 6.7 magnitude Northridge Earthquake hit in 1994, it shook buildings in El Tejon Unified, which is the southernmost school district in Kern County in the Frazier Park area.
When it hit, stuff swayed, but nothing was damaged: no cracks were found, and ceiling fans stayed put, Nieto said.
"Northridge was a big one and everything survived," he said. "Above that, if something heavier hits, I don't know if they will survive. It's unforeseen."
Kern County was the epicenter of a massive 7.5 magnitude quake that struck on July 21, 1952. The temblor and its aftershocks killed 12 people and damaged or destroyed scores of buildings in Bakersfield and Tehachapi. That shaker originated on the White Wolf fault.
A BCSD spokesman noted the AB 300 list includes buildings completed as far back as 1930, and which remained intact following quakes.
Greg Fenton, senior engineering manager at the Kern County Engineering and Survey Services Department, said he's found that the Division of the State Architect -- which enforces the Field Act -- takes a hard look at school buildings.
Although his office does not review schools, many buildings throughout the county are constructed similarly to school buildings -- especially "big box" shops like Walmart and The Home Depots, he said.
It's expected, during an earthquake, to see cracks and damage to stucco. But overall, Fenton said, he's "not aware of any big issues."
"We got things in our favor," he said. "But we don't have earthquakes in our favor."
For now, school officials are playing catch up to get school buildings complaint with the Field Act, clearing inspections, submitting paperwork to the state, and keeping up with ever-changing school building codes.
After California Watch started investigating, the state architect office informed the Kern High School District of 54 yet-to-be-certified projects, Colvard said. The district has gotten OKs from inspectors and architects, and submitted paperwork for certification on all but one project.
That final one, Highland High's Anderson Hall -- opened in 1970 -- will soon be cleared, too, he said. "It's a changing environment."