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State oversight of seismic and structural safety standards on school construction projects throughout California has been ineffective and incomplete, with thousands of projects left uncertified even after they are finished, the state auditor said today.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said in a report that the Division of the State Architect "has not provided an effective, comprehensive level of oversight of school construction processes," including no evidence of site visits in some cases, and only infrequent site visits in others.

The report, which you can read in full at this link, also criticized the division's oversight of local project inspectors, who are either school district employees or contractors. The state sometimes excused those inspectors from required training and has not always ensured inspectors passed current exams, the audit said.

In violation of regulations, the audit said, California school districts often started construction before the division approved their inspectors.

The audit acknowledges that the Division of the Architect's power is limited: State law allows school districts to occupy uncertified projects, and the division has no authority to penalize those that do.

But the audit said the division has too infrequently used the authority it does have, for example to block construction in cases in which it identifies a public safety risk.

"By not fully taking advantage of the authority state law grants it, the division may be less effective in correcting identified safety concerns before districts complete construction and occupy school facilities," the audit said.

As of December 2010, the division estimated there are about 16,400 uncertified projects throughout the state, according to the audit.

In a written response, Fred Klass, director of the Department of General Services, noted the limits of the division's authority but said many of the auditor's concerns were consistent with those identified in a recent internal review.

In general, he wrote, the auditor's recommendations "have merit and will be promptly addressed."

The audit's release comes two days after Gov. Jerry Brown announced appointing a new state architect, Chester "Chet" Widom, a Los Angeles architect and former president of the American Institute of Architects.

The state's involvement in school construction oversight came after an earthquake in Long Beach in 1933 destroyed 70 schools and damaged 120 more, according to the audit. The schools were unoccupied at the time; had they been occupied, it said, hundreds of children might have died.

The law requiring state oversight of school construction was passed the following month.


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