Senator proposes seismic moves on schools

Bend-La Pine Schools questions report that some schools at risk of collapse

By Taylor W. Anderson (@taylorwanderson) and Tyler Leeds

SALEM — Several buildings in Bend-La Pine Schools are at risk of collapse during a major earthquake that Oregon scientists say is on its way, according to a report from 2007.

But the district questions the validity of the report, and, in spite of that initial assessment,the district has made relatively few seismic upgrades to buildings that were rated at high or very high risk of collapse during a major earthquake.

That could change under a proposal unveiled in Salem on Tuesday by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who will ask lawmakers next session to approve $200 million in bonds to upgrade at-risk buildings in the state.

Courtney’s proposal could put pressure on districts such as Bend-La Pine to take state funds and retrofit buildings for safety.

“This money is not just for some schools,” Courtney said at a news conference unveiling the proposal. “This is for any and all schools that need (upgrades), regardless of what their school districts have done or not done.”

Five buildings in Bend-La Pine were considered very likely to at least partially collapse during a major earthquake, according to the 2007 assessment.

More than a dozen other buildings were given a high risk assessment.

“It’s not an in-depth site analysis,” said Ali Ryan, with the state’s geology department. “The probability of collapse is approximate.”

Districts whose schools are at high risk of collapse, such as Bend-La Pine, were encouraged to have their buildings thoroughly evaluated by a consultant to assess actual risk, Ryan said, something Bend-La Pine Schools has not done in the past seven years.

District officials say the initial report wasn’t thorough and that the district has made upgrades since the report was released.

“From my understanding, this was just a drive-by analysis, as no one actually stepped inside the buildings,” Brad Henry, the district’s chief financial and operations officer, said Tuesday.

Julianne Repman, the district’s communications and school safety director, noted the study also did not take into consideration whether the buildings are located on bedrock — which some are — and when structures had been upgraded since their initial construction.

“Another piece is the emphasis on drilling students, not just the buildings,” Repman said. “Our students know what to do during a catastrophic event, which can mitigate its effects.”

The school district has made upgrades, such as the removal from Westside Village Magnet School of a tall chimney, which the 2007 report identified as a hazard. Some entrances with hanging roofs have been upgraded, including at R.E. Jewell and Buckingham elementary schools.

Bend-La Pine annual reports show the district has added and remodeled several rooms since the report’s release. But of the five schools that were deemed at very high risk of collapse, one has been seismically updated since the report’s release, according to status reports that are filed annually with the state.

The district hasn’t applied for any of the $18.7 million of state grants that have been awarded to districts to upgrade their buildings. The state has funded 25 projects for school building improvements, at a median cost of about $600,000 and as high as $1.5 million. Districts in September will file applications for another $15 million the Legislature approved last year.

Voters in 2002 approved more than $1 billion in bonding authority for the effort to upgrade the more than 1,000 schools in Oregon that are regarded as at risk of potentially life-threatening damage during a major earthquake.

The proposal in Salem for this type of large-scale bonding will likely coincide with a $100 million package the Department of Administrative Services will request this December, Gloria Zacharias, head of seismic policy coordination, said.

Courtney’s package has widespread support from both parties, despite Courtney’s Republican challenger in the November election, Patti Milne, calling the proposal a political stunt.

Milne said, however, she does support funding for seismic upgrades to schools.

House Republican Leader Mike McLane, of Powell Butte, said he has always supported making safety upgrades to schools.

“I’ve been supportive of this for quite a while, along with many of my colleagues,” McLane said.

“I’m pleased that Sen. Courtney joined us today in prioritizing schools first.”

Courtney said he wants every school that needs seismic upgrades to take state bond money for the project.

“Every school that needs to be retrofitted should be retrofitted. That’s a major statement on this,” Courtney said. “That is, I think, the Oregon way. It will be the Oregon way.”

The proposal would be a significant portion of the state’s estimated $800 million to $900 million bonding authority for the next budget cycle.

The Legislature also will probably consider whether to fund a major Capitol renovation, with a price tag of $250 million or more.

— Anderson: 406-589-4347, tanderson@bendbulletin.com

— Leeds: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com