Private schools reach consensus with SF on earthquake safety evaluations

Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner file photo
Private schools including St. Finn Barr Catholic School will have three years to come into compliance with seismic evaluation requirements under a law awaiting Mayor Ed Lee's signature.
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Beginning as early as this fall, private schools in San Francisco could be required to conduct earthquake-safety evaluations within the next three years.

A proposed ordinance that would call for The City's 120 private schools to undergo seismic evaluations was re-introduced to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The legislation, first introduced to the board in February, has been amended numerous times after dozens of private-school leaders expressed concerns over the cost of evaluations and potential subsequent retrofits.

Over the past several months, school leaders and The City's earthquake safety officials agreed to various adjustments to the ordinance to alleviate lingering concerns among education officials — some of whom told The San Francisco Examiner in April that their schools could potentially be forced to close due to expenses resulting from the original ordinance.

Most recently, an interagency working group will convene in August to facilitate priority permit processing with city departments — such as building, fire and public works — to assist schools that opt to voluntarily retrofit their buildings by expediting permits and providing guidance to limit the impact of nonseismic code triggers and requirements.

“We realize that many schools will choose to take action as a result so several assurances were given to provide support and guidance to these schools if [and when] schools choose to retrofit voluntarily,” Patrick Otellini, director of earthquake safety for San Francisco, wrote in an e-mail to The Examiner.

City officials have also scrapped a plan to post the results of the private-school seismic evaluation reports to a website, and have added language to the ordinance that specifies only classrooms and school administration buildings will need to be evaluated.

“I wouldn't say we got 100 percent of the things we were looking for, but that's the nature of compromise,” said Larry Kamer, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which represents about 40 of the private schools that were wary of the ordinance.

“A lot of the concerns, especially about the fast timeline and transparency issues, were at the top of our list and we feel they've been taken seriously and addressed,” Kamer said.

The legislation was created after a December report, “Earthquake Risk and San Francisco's Schools,” found that at least one-third of private-school buildings “have characteristics that indicate they might perform poorly in future earthquakes.”

There wasn't enough information to establish the possible seismic performance of 24 percent of the buildings, and 43 percent of private-school buildings are “likely to perform well” in an earthquake, according to the report.

But the ordinance was suspended after it turned out that as many as 80 of The City's 120 private schools were concerned about or not even aware of the proposed ordinance, despite more than a year of outreach by the earthquake working group.

The Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee is expected to take up the ordinance Sept. 8 before it goes to the full board for a vote. Private schools would then have three years from the effective date to perform evaluations.

The legislation will not require retrofits.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who chairs the Land Use Committee and co-sponsored the ordinance, emphasized there is often a misperception that private schools are wealthy, which is why he helped facilitate the consensus between the schools and The City.

“It's important to make sure the schools stay viable while also moving towards seismic safety,” Wiener said. “This resolution will help us achieve both goals.”

If approved, the legislation would make San Francisco the first city in California to require private schools to be evaluated for earthquake safety.

Proposed ordinance for private school seismic evaluation

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