Private schools wary of proposed legislation on seismic evaluations

Earthquake-safety officials are ready to move forward with legislation that would make San Francisco the first city in California — and possibly the U.S. — to require private schools to be seismically evaluated.

The proposed ordinance is slated to go before the Board of Supervisors by late summer after enduring several amendments since it was first introduced to supervisors in February, prompted by dozens of private schools expressing concerns over the cost of evaluations and potential subsequent retrofits.

But some school officials are still uneasy about possible effects of requiring seismic evaluations and feel The City is moving too quickly with the legislation.

Thursday, tensions mounted between school leaders wary of the proposed ordinance and members of the Private Schools Earthquake Safety Working Group, which examined the seismic safety of The City's 120 private schools and recommended seismic evaluations of private schools in a December report.

The report revealed that at least a third of San Francisco 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 buildings, and 43 percent of private school buildings are “likely to perform well” in an earthquake, according to the report.

City officials have taken steps to quench the fears of private-school leaders, most recently by scrapping a plan to post the results of the private-school seismic evaluation reports to a website.

“I don't think we're going to go the route of keeping this a private document,” said Patrick Otellini, director of earthquake safety for The City. “At the same time, waiving it in a big flag on a website might be going too far.”

Armand Kilijian, a spokesman for KZV Armenian School, commended the earthquake-safety team's decision not to post the reports online because that could alarm the public.

“I'm in construction so I understand how consultants' reports can look disastrous when they're not. They're just following the terms and vernacular used in the industry,” Kilijian said.

The earthquake-safety group has made other changes to the ordinance in an effort to compromise with school leaders, such as adding language that specifies only classrooms and school administration buildings will need to be evaluated, and helping schools minimize unforeseen code impacts.

But some schools, particularly those that are tuition-based and serve mainly low- to middle-income families, have lingering concerns over costs and potential consequences of conducting earthquake-safety evaluations. Otellini estimates evaluations will cost $5,000 per building.

Retrofits as a result of the evaluations will not be required in the ordinance, but school leaders worry they will legally have to perform them anyway once it's disclosed that a building might not be seismically safe.

“Once the schools receive a report, it essentially becomes a mandatory retrofit at that time,” said Dave Kane, a parent of two students at Notre Dame des Victoires School.

Otellini said that lacking an evaluation doesn't necessarily indemnify a school.

“Regardless of the evaluation, if a building falls down and people are injured, the building owner is liable,” Otellini said.

Displacement of students during retrofitting is also a concern, according to Kane.

“A lot of these schools are in pretty tight quarters,” Kane said. For “some of them, there's really no place to put the kids while they're doing retrofit work."

The legislation is slated to be brought before the Code Advisory Committee next week. It will then head to the Building Inspection Committee, the Land Use Committee and finally to the Board of Supervisors, presumably by late summer.

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