Washington lawmakers have known for years that few public school buildings in the state meet earthquake-resistant safety standards.
A new report shows just how widespread the problem is and how it has overwhelmed many school districts in Washington. State and federal lawmakers must step in to help.
State lawmakers can take an appropriate first step during this short session that begins in January by lowering the voter threshold to approve school building obligations by a simple majority. Since lawmakers raised the threshold to 60% more than 70 years ago, it has been difficult for too many districts to get voter approval for construction needs.
Although Washington has one of the highest earthquake risks in the United States, most public school students attend classes in buildings that predate modern seismic safety standards. Ninety-three percent of the state’s 561 school buildings surveyed in recent geological and technical assessments received the lowest possible rating – one star on the five-star rating scale developed by the American Resilience Council. According to this panel of experts, an average building designed to meet modern building codes should expect to achieve a safety rating of three to four stars.
A Seattle Times survey in 2016 found that one in three students enrolled in Washington schools – about 386,000 students at the time – lived in earthquake-prone areas and attended schools built before the adoption of the laws. earthquake-resistant building standards statewide in 1975.
The legislative report, released this summer by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Office of the Commissioner of Public Lands, is the most comprehensive look to date on the problem. The facts are startling. For example, 67 of the school buildings studied, serving more than 10,000 students, are located in the tsunami flood zones.
Bringing state school buildings up to seismic standards won’t be cheap, but the alternative is unthinkable. Washington cannot continue to play this dangerous game.
Beyond the latent threat to children’s safety, renovating buildings to bring them up to standard is often less expensive than repairing or rebuilding schools damaged by the earthquake.
State lawmakers have set aside a modest fund for the most urgent needs in school districts that cannot raise the funds to meet them, but it’s a drop in the bucket. Significantly more funding is needed, especially to help small rural districts that have older buildings and find it difficult to raise funds.
Until then, lawmakers can help by lowering the bond threshold to allow more districts to present their point of view by a simple majority of their voters.