Safety with fairness for city’s private schools
April 30th, 2014
By Bishop Robert W. McElroy
The city of San Francisco is poised to impose a crushing burden upon the Catholic schools of the city. And the worst part is that much of this burden is totally unnecessary.
A proposed new ordinance addressing seismic safety in private schools has an important and critical goal – to work with private schools in San Francisco to evaluate the seismic safety of their buildings and to take steps to retrofit those school buildings which would be vulnerable in case of an earthquake. The Catholic school community stands ready and eager to work with city government to accomplish this goal, for the safety of our students and faculty and staff, as well as for the peace of mind of our parents.
The problem with the proposed ordinance is not with its goal, but its design. The ordinance grew out of the deliberations of a City Hall working group on private schools which had more than 40 members, but not a single pastor, principal or teacher from a Catholic school. Nor did the panel include significant representation from the many non-Catholic private schools in San Francisco, especially those which predominantly serve the poor and students with learning or physical disabilities. Overwhelmingly, the panel was composed of seismic specialists, architects and construction interests with little professional background in education. This lack of educational knowledge and perspective resulted in a proposed ordinance which requires the online publication of complex seismic study data about every private school in the city. Such a step will cause chaos in the private school community. It will generate confusion and discord among parents, invite legal suits against particular schools, and could easily lead to a mass exodus from particular schools based on faulty understandings of risk. It is for this reason that the state Legislature specifically legally prohibited such an approach for public schools in California. Yet this irresponsible tactic is the primary tool that City Hall seeks to use in promoting collaboration with the private school community.
The proposed seismic safety ordinance for private schools is part of “The Community Action Plan for Seismic Safety,” a long-term process that San Francisco adopted mandating that specific categories of buildings be progressively subjected to retrofit laws. The process calls for a three-step process that begins with evaluation and ends with a strict legal requirement to complete retrofit work. The cost to those of our Catholic schools which need to be retrofitted will likely exceed $1 million per school when one takes into account the non-seismic costs triggered in the building code by seismic upgrading. The costs to many of the non-Catholic schools in the city could be equally lethal, especially because many of these institutions rent from landlords who will not be likely to make the costly upgrades required for private school use.
The “Community Action Plan” also calls upon city government to help those upon whom the burden of retrofitting is being imposed. According to the plan, schools are among those nonprofits which make the fabric of our city rich and vibrant. But these elements of the plan have been ignored by the mayor’s office in fashioning the proposed ordinance. The Community Action Plan calls for the city to focus retrofit burdens on those buildings where risk is most significant, to amend local building codes to lighten the burdens of retrofitting, and to provide realistic financial assistance that can aid in the retrofit effort. None of this has been accomplished in the ordinance.
The Catholic schools of the archdiocese, in collaboration with a wide range of religious and non-denominational private schools in San Francisco, have proposed three vital changes which flow directly from the principles of the 2010 Community Action Plan:
1. Change the proposed ordinance to demand a life-safety standard of retrofit, rather than the more costly “resiliency” standard. This will focus our efforts on our most fundamental concerns, which are the life and safety of our children.
2. Incorporate the state standard in determining what constitutes a school building: “any building used for educational purposes through the 12th grade by 50 or more persons for more than 12 hours per week or four hours in any one day.” This will insure that we can concentrate on our core school buildings rather than the other parish buildings such as convents, which students occasionally utilize.
3. Undertake a comprehensive initiative to minimize the non-seismic building code requirements which will be triggered in the effort of any of our schools to meet seismic safety standards. It is likely that these non-seismic code issues could well cost more than the seismic upgrades in many schools.
These changes will dramatically enhance the ability of our Catholic schools in the city of San Francisco to move forward together to enhance seismic safety. Even with these changes, many of our schools will face immensely challenging retrofit costs of more than $1 million per school. If these changes are not made in the ordinance, it is inevitable that a number of our schools will be forced to close, especially those schools that serve the poorest among us. Both our church and our city would be deeply wounded by such an outcome.
The 2010 Community Action Plan on Seismic Safety has two conflicting themes which run through it. One stresses the need for resiliency and the centrality of the tech-oriented economic life in the city of San Francisco. The other stresses the importance of our social fabric, our sense of place. How the mayor and the Board of Supervisors proceed with the proposed seismic safety ordinance for private schools in the coming weeks will say a great deal about which is more important in their eyes.
Bishop McElroy is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
From May 2, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.