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More sought for school seismic work

Senate president: Lawmakers should OK $200 million.


Senate President Peter Courtney says he will call for $200 million in bonds to help make Oregon schools more resistant to earthquakes.

More than 1,000 school buildings are considered at very high risk or high risk of collapsing if there is a major earthquake, according to a 2006 state study.

But even though Oregon voters in 2002 authorized $500 million in bonds for seismic retrofits of schools, only about 25 projects have been carried out at a cost of $18.7 million. Lawmakers set aside $15 million for grants to schools in 2013.

Courtney says schools need more, and he will press lawmakers to approve more next year.

“We have a responsibility to children that we try to make sure our schools can take this kind of hit,” says Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who led the effort for bond approval in 2002, before he became Senate president.

“I think we may have reached the point where we are willing to make this move.”

Courtney says contributing to that willingness are an improving economy and increased public awareness of natural disasters, particularly the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Until recent years, Oregon had not prepared for the possibility of earthquakes, unlike California. But research into the Cascadia subduction zone off Oregon’s coast indicates that Oregon could expect a major earthquake on the average of every 300 years. The most recent such earthquake was in January 1700.

Courtney spoke Tuesday at a news conference at McKinley Elementary School in Salem, one of the 744 school buildings rated in the 2006 survey at high risk (greater than 10 percent) of collapsing in a major earthquake.

He was flanked by officials from schools and the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, which carried out the rapid visual screenings of almost 2,200 schools and other buildings in 2006.

“More funds would accelerate the process” of retrofitting, says Vicki McConnell, the state geologist. “We never expected it to happen overnight.”

Although voters set bond limits through the Oregon Constitution, it is up to lawmakers to approve the amount of general obligation bonds backed by the state’s credit.

Lawmakers normally approve bonds as part of the state’s two-year budget. The next opportunity would be next year during their consideration of the 2015-17 budget, which starts July 1, 2015.

Courtney said he has been advised the state may be able to accommodate a projected $800 million to $900 million in new bonds during that cycle. A more precise figure will be developed by the State Debt Policy Advisory Commission in January.

Courtney's Republican opponent for the District 11 seat, former Marion County Commissioner Patti Milne, accused Courtney of grandstanding at a time when lawmakers also are considering upwards of $200 million in bonds for seismic reinforcement of the 75-year-old Capitol.

"Until more is done to address structurally unsound schools where our children learn and play, Peter Courtney has no business starting another large remodel project at the Capitol," Milne said in a statement.

Milne is seeking to derail Courtney's fifth-term bid. She referred to a 2007-08 project, approved on a bipartisan vote, to renovate the Capitol office wings.

Asked about the Capitol project, which has received money only for preliminary engineering, Courtney replied: "The Capitol needs to be done; there's no question about that. But they are not related."

Although most school buildings in Portland suburbs are not among the 274 considered at "very high risk" of collapsing in a major earthquake, abut a dozen exist in several districts in Clackamas and Washington counties. Portland Public Schools had 16 schools on that list in 2006 — mostly built in the 1920s — and Lincoln and Washington elementary schools in Woodburn also are on the high-risk list.

Courtney sponsored a 2012 law that requires districts to make public through websites the seismic readiness of school buildings.

The $200 million Courtney proposes would be distributed under an existing grant program that does not require matching funds by school districts. The program is run now by the Oregon Business Development Department.

Betsy Miller-Jones, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, says more funding is among her members’ priorities in the 2015 session.

“Our school boards across the state have been struggling to find funding to upgrade and make safe our school buildings,” she says. “So we are pleased Senator Courtney has brought this forward. Our members have said we want to put more effort behind this and work toward statewide funding.”

Voters in 2002 also authorized up to $500 million in bonds for seismic retrofitting of police and fire stations, hospitals, and other buildings housing emergency services. But relatively few such buildings show up on the 2006 survey.

“They’ve done better on their own,” Courtney says.

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

twitter.com/capitolwong


Adds comment from Peter Courtney's Republican rival for the Senate seat, former Marion County Commissioner Patti Milne, and Courtney's response. Also clarifies which agency administers grants for seismic upgrades.