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Is Your Kid's School Ready for the Big One?

Most Los Altos School District campuses appear well prepared for an earthquake. Only one is classified as having safety-related deficiencies.

Earthquakes are a well-known fact of life in California, with scientists predicting for years that the next big quake will strike any day. 

When it does, will we—and the buildings we live, work and study in—hold up?

A 19-month California Watch investigation released Thursday uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools. 

California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported. 

A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades. 

Of the 20,000 on the uncertified list, about 1,000 are listed with the highest warning from the Division of the State Architect (DSA)—also known as “Letter 4.”

Records at the state architect's office indicated a Letter 4 has been issued for , in Los Altos Hills. It involved the relocation of three portable classrooms in 2009. The district also applied to relocate a portable in the summer of 2010 and construct a lunch arbor. Neither projects has been certified by the state, according to the DSA’s records indicated in the application summaries.

“Typically, it takes a while for close-out of projects, including new portables on a campus,” said Randall Kenyon, assistant superintendent of business services. “We added a portable to Gardner Bullis last summer and still don’t have the final close-out.”

The idea that lack of "close-out" in relation to the portables might be classified by the state as a seismic safety issue was one that surprised Kenyon. He said he was checking with the district’s architect, as well as going through files for what kind of documentation may have passed between the state and the district, and if there were outstanding issues.

“I’m not aware of any such communication from DSA and highly doubt we have any structural issues at Gardner Bullis School,” Kenyon said.

This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about Patch's collaboration with California Watch. Los Altos Patch will continue to investigate the issues at Gardner Bullis School.

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