SF working with private school leaders rattled by proposed earthquake safety measures 

click to enlarge earthquake drill
  • mike koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Fifth-grade students take cover during a recent earthquake drill at St. Finn Barr Catholic School, a private school in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Many San Franciscans are well-aware that an earthquake could strike at any time. In fact, it’s recommended that residents be prepared to be stranded for at least three days and have an emergency plan in place for the next Big One.

For more than a decade, city officials have been exploring safety measures and have taken a number of steps to minimize potential damage in future earthquakes. One such move has been a requirement to evaluate and retrofit pre-1978 wood-frame buildings that contain five or more residential units above a weak story such as a garage, which are often called soft-story structures.

Evaluating the safety of schools in The City has also been a recent priority, and in 2010, the Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety recommended city officials look at the inequity of seismic-safety requirements between public and private schools, according to Patrick Otellini, director of earthquake safety for The City.

While state law requires that public schools meet certain seismic-safety standards, there is no such mandate for private schools.

In response, earthquake-safety officials established in 2012 the Private Schools Earthquake Safety Working Group, a volunteer team of engineers, city staff and school officials that meets monthly to examine the seismic safety of The City’s 120 private schools.

In a December report, Earthquake Risk and San Francisco’s Schools, which culminated a yearlong investigation, the group revealed that when it comes to private-school facilities, some buildings could be among the least equipped to handle a large temblor.

But an ordinance proposed in February in response to that finding, which would require private schools to be seismically evaluated within the next three years, has a handful of school officials worried about what impact that could have on their campuses.

According to the report, a majority of private school buildings could be vulnerable to damage or collapse during a large earthquake.

Some 33 percent of private-school buildings “have characteristics that indicate they might perform poorly in future earthquakes,” the report says. Also, there wasn’t enough information to establish the possible seismic performance of 24 percent of buildings.

The report did determine that 43 percent of private school buildings are “likely to perform well” in an earthquake.

“It is a problem, it’s a hard problem, but we can’t solve it if we don’t know,” Laura Samant, chairwoman of the working group and author of the report, said of potential risks. “Right now, we’re just pretending it doesn’t exist, and that’s not going to make children safer.”

Toll of past disasters

More students — about 24,000, or one-third of The City’s children — attend private schools in San Francisco than in any other city in California. But unlike with public schools, there is no law mandating that private schools meet certain seismic-safety standards.

Following the 1933 6.4-magnitude Long Beach earthquake, which damaged or destroyed dozens of school buildings in Southern California, the state passed the Field Act, which regulates building construction practices in California.

The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was devastating in many ways to the Bay Area, but according to official standards, it was not considered a major earthquake for The City because it was centered closer to Santa Cruz, according to Otellini. Damage to schools from that quake was documented poorly because records were not digital at the time, Otellini said. But the effects of the earthquake did prompt the San Francisco Unified School District to step up its efforts to retrofit schools.

The district still continually performs seismic safety upgrades to its facilities.

“Earthquakes are a fact of life,” said Bill Barnes, a spokesman for the City Administrator’s Office. “We have an obligation to make sure people in our city are safe.” And while some private schools in The City have been evaluated and retrofitted to meet seismic-safety standards, the lack of a law calling for such an effort prompted Mayor Ed Lee to introduce the ordinance this year that aims to start “a meaningful conversation” about seismic safety in private schools, Otellini said.

As it stands, the ordinance calls for a life-safety level of evaluation of buildings used for educational purposes. The evaluations would be submitted to the Department of Building Inspection within three years of the ordinance’s effective date, and schools would not be required to perform retrofits.

Worries over cost

Despite The City’s public-outreach efforts prior to the report’s publication, dozens of private school officials said they had never heard of the proposed ordinance until last month. And for some tuition-based schools that serve mainly low- to middle-income families, school officials say the impact of the ordinance could lead to campus closures.

Part of the problem, school officials say, is that there’s a general assumption that private schools are wealthy. And while the ordinance doesn’t require any retrofits, school officials say they would feel obligated and possibly be legally pressured to do the work — which some can’t afford.

Otellini acknowledged potential legal issues that could arise from seismic evaluations, but said evaluations are a “critical step” in understanding potential risks.

“Ignoring that does not alleviate [schools] of liability,” he said.

It is possible language indemnifying schools as a result of the evaluations could be added to the ordinance, but that will have to be explored with the City Attorney’s Office, Otellini said.

Another issue is that there’s no definitive cost for the evaluations outlined in the ordinance — city officials estimate it could be as little as $8,000, while some schools say it could be as much as $20,000.

“The burden of the evaluation, financially, would have an impact,” said Principal Mele Mortonson of St. Finn Barr Catholic School. St. Finn Barr is primarily tuition-based and has “a very limited endowment and building fund,” according to Mortonson.

“The impact in general of having these evaluations done is going to be significant for a lot of schools who are running on similar margins as my school,” she said.

Gustavo Torres, a grant writer and development officer for the Alliance of Mission District Catholic Schools, said the five schools in The City served by the alliance could be in danger of closing due to costs associated with the ordinance.

“We’re struggling as it is to cater to the most vulnerable families in The City who can’t afford tuition,” Torres said. “None of our schools have a building fund.”

The majority of the students served by the alliance receive tuition assistance and are English-language learners, he added. While the archdiocese has agreed to help pay for the evaluations, Torres said it’s the outcome of what’s discovered that could be most troublesome.

“The moment you do that evaluation and the community sees the word ‘unsafe,’ or other buzzwords that a report may give off, that’s going to be detrimental to parents,” Torres said. “School safety is a top priority, but we [need to] take a step back and work together to achieve these safety goals.”

St. Peter’s Catholic School, which is also located in the Mission but isn’t part of the alliance, opened in 1878 and was last renovated in the 1960s. Vice Principal Karen Hammen said the school offers its 300 students the lowest tuition among Archdiocese of San Francisco campuses and raises funds to cover about one-third of its operating costs.

“We’re struggling every day to continue to provide a quality Catholic education for students whose families have made significant sacrifices to send their children to our school,” Hammen said.

Working together

The City touted its public-outreach efforts prior to investigating the seismic safety of private schools, saying principals were all sent an email notifying them of the impending report and encouraging them to get involved in the process.

Otellini, San Francisco’s earthquake-safety director, said the working group had a staffer spend months visiting each of the 120 private schools’ websites to find a primary point of contact, to whom the working group reached out several times within the past year and a half.

But the fact that a number of principals and other school officials reportedly never received word from The City regarding the investigation or proposed ordinance prompted city officials to temporarily suspend the legislation.

City officials also hosted a meeting recently to address some of the schools’ concerns, and said San Francisco remains committed to making the ordinance as transparent as possible. The report, the ordinance and all other associated literature are available online through www.sfgsa.org.

“We want to make sure schools are engaged in this process,” Otellini said.

He emphasized that the purpose of the ordinance is awareness of seismic risks, and that many private school officials are grateful The City is taking steps to ensure the safety of their students.

“We certainly don’t want to see schools close as a result of this,” Otellini said.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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Thursday, Nov 26, 2015


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