An investigation by California Watch finds that the Hollywood school has serious safety issues that could put students at risk in an earthquake.
By Kendall Taggart and Corey G. Johnson | Hollywood Patch | http://bit.ly/stVCBC
Helen Bernstein High School in Los Angeles is on the state’s list of school construction projects with some of the most serious safety problems. Credit Mark Avery/For California Watch
22 December 2011 :: Helen Bernstein High was supposed to be a new kind of school—a facility that would serve 2,100 students on a footprint of only 12.4 acres, with views of the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory.
Work on the campus started in 2004—part of a $20 billion building program launched by the Los Angeles Unified School District. But construction was troubled almost from the start.
Four years in, the state supervising structural engineer learned that more than 1,320 changes were made without the state’s approval. Engineers say some of those changes could weaken structures and put students at risk in an earthquake.
In several cases, subcontractors for the general contractor, Tutor-Saliba Corp., had built over construction flaws—despite objections from school inspectors, records obtained by California Watch and interviews show. Before the work was hidden by plaster and cement, inspectors photographed missing anchors, damaged bolts, lopsided walls and crooked floor frames.
Yet neither the Los Angeles Unified School District nor the state stepped in to stop Tutor-Saliba or its subcontractors. Despite receiving thousands of non-compliance notices, including a list of uncorrected structural problems, school officials moved children, teachers and staff into the buildings three years ago.
The conditions at Helen Bernstein High School illustrate a festering problem in scores of California schools. Bernstein and 85 other projects were flagged by state structural engineers for serious safety issues.
And yet, local school districts have allowed more than 42,000 students to attend these schools without resolving many of the safety concerns, records and interviews show.
- This report is a follow-up to the California Watch investigation, On Shaky Ground, which was first published in April. The investigation uncovered systematic failures by the state's chief regulator of construction standards for California's public schools.
Tim Buresh, former chief operating officer for Los Angeles Unified and a former vice president of Tutor Perini Corp., Tutor-Saliba’s parent company, said the school district and contractor agreed to keep the project moving despite the notices.
“If you stopped the work every time you found a problem, when it was taking many months for [the architect] to resolve any one issue, you would simply not be able to get it done,” said Buresh, who was interviewed this month about his role. He went to work on California’s high-speed-rail initiative in June.
Defects have yet to be fixed
Construction defects include ceiling braces inside the library and student dining area that a state field engineer said could be too weak to withstand shaking in an earthquake and large lighting fixtures in the practice gym that the inspector was unable to thoroughly review. These problems still have not been fixed.
“These are serious issues,” said Dan Shapiro, a structural engineer and former Seismic Safety Commission member who reviewed building plans, construction photos and inspection reports regarding Helen Bernstein for California Watch.
Kelly Schmader, Los Angeles Unified’s chief facilities executive, acknowledged mistakes were made.
“This definitely is not one of our proudest moments at Helen Bernstein High School,” he said. “This project has been a struggle for us.”
In April, California Watch identified thousands of schools across the state that had failed to meet the state’s rigorous seismic safety standards. A report by the state auditor released this month confirmed those findings, noting that weak oversight has potentially put children at risk. This group of 86 projects has been designated by the state as posing the greatest potential risk to students and teachers.
At these sites, which cost more than $300 million to build, regulators from the Division of the State Architect and local school district administrators were told of illegal work or dangerous shortcuts in time to intervene, records and interviews show. Instead, supervisors ignored the warnings and charged ahead.
State regulators have pledged to keep problems at these 86 projects on the radar until they are resolved, although they insist that none of the projects pose an imminent threat to children.
The Division of the State Architect, which oversees public school construction, is now supposed to send periodic notifications to these districts about any remaining building issues, according to Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, the parent agency of the state architect's office. In most cases, repeated notifications had not been sent to school districts in the past.
More than a third of the 86 projects are in seismically active Los Angeles County, where problems include walls that were not properly connected to the foundations. Nearly half of the building projects have remained on the state’s uncertified school list for 10 years or longer, according to state records.
Chaotic oversight, unapproved changes
As school district and construction officials prepared to open Helen Bernstein High School in 2008, they touted it as a new landmark for Hollywood, one of 74 new schools completed as part of Los Angeles Unified’s multibillion-dollar construction program.
By the time it was built, the project was $60 million over budget and two years behind schedule. Days after the school opened, 18,500 construction tasks had not been completed, according to a final inspection report submitted to the state and the district.
The tasks ranged from minor items, such as exit signs that had not been installed, to serious structural issues, including ceilings above the library and student dining area that were not properly braced to withstand shaking in an earthquake.
In both the library and dining areas, places that are often teeming with schoolchildren, the contractor connected braces in the wrong spots, records show. That created potential structural weaknesses, according to the state field engineer.
At one point, the inspector’s log included 3,800 deviations from state building plans. Half of those deviations were structural. The district acknowledged it is still grappling with about 1,000 changes that have not been vetted by the state. In at least six cases, the deviations are buried behind plaster and concrete and would be difficult, if not impossible, to correct.
District oversight of the project was chaotic. Before buildings were occupied, five different project managers were brought in. Each one had to deal with hundreds of deviations that weren’t resolved by his predecessor.
The district relied on outside contractors to manage construction. Most had little experience with the unique requirements of California’s school building code, and some later sought jobs with the contractors they were expected to manage. There also was tremendous pressure to keep construction moving to avoid increased costs.
Inspectors say system broke down
Former inspectors and project managers said the district’s oversight system broke down. Walter Jones, who recently retired from Los Angeles Unified after working as a supervising inspector for more than two decades, said: “They saw any inspector writing up a deviation notice as getting in the way. It’s not asking too much to get the job that you’re paying for.”
State regulators also expressed concern about the contractor’s work. During construction, a state field engineer wrote that the contractor was closing up the structural framing with architectural finishes despite unresolved problems.
“If any accident occurs in the future [that happens in those areas which were not constructed per DSA approved documents], who will be liable for that?” James Lin, the field engineer, wrote.
Interviews and district documents reviewed by California Watch describe a battle between the general contractor, Tutor-Saliba, and district construction inspectors who were repeatedly documenting instances in which the firm and its subcontractors illegally built over unapproved work.
Steve Sharr, the district’s former regional director of new construction, wrote in a December 2005 survey of senior project executives: “We’ve lost sight of the strategic goals as a consequence of trying to put out fires on a day-to-day basis. … [The contractor] continues to be adversarial and lacks a QC [quality control] focus and implementation.”
The lead inspector, Mike Rosenberg, cited Tutor-Saliba and its subcontractor more than 15 times for building over work despite deficiencies.
Jack Frost, executive vice president at Tutor-Saliba, said in an interview that every deviation was resolved to Los Angeles Unified’s satisfaction or the company would not have been paid.
Curtis Olsen, a former Los Angeles Unified project manager who worked on the Helen Bernstein project, said the district paid Tutor-Saliba to fix mistakes the firm made to keep the project on schedule. Olsen said senior project managers Rick Hijazi and Sharr agreed Tutor was at fault but told him to sign the invoices anyway.
“I think there are a lot of areas that they [Tutor-Saliba] didn’t comply with the building code or the contract and it wasn’t their intent to comply,” he said.
Sharr acknowledged that the district paid Tutor-Saliba to fix mistakes the company may have caused. If the district had not done that, "we would still be arguing about it to this day," he said. "That was a conscious series of discussions at the highest management level about what it was going to take to get the school done.”
Mike Kerchner, a vice president for Tutor-Saliba, was constantly interfering with construction and trying to get additional funds for the company, Olsen said.
Kerchner did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When asked about the criticisms of Kerchner, former Tutor Perini executive Buresh attributed the “huge numbers of errors” on the project to the design professionals, saying their plans were unclear.
While the deviation notices began to number in the hundreds and construction fell behind schedule, Kerchner complained to Los Angeles Unified that the project inspector was causing delays.
“Contrary to our many discussions the LAUSD has not been able to demonstrate any reasonable control or influence with the IOR [inspector of record] on this project,” Kerchner wrote.
According to state law, the inspector of record is an independent agent of the Division of the State Architect and cannot be directed by a contractor or the district.
Inspectors contend that the district’s project managers pressured them to sign off on unsafe work.
“A lot of the people there have let code violations go in order to keep them [project management] happy, and allowed contractors to close up work that’s a clear code violation,” said Jones, the former inspection supervisor. “They’ve been certified by people who didn’t want to make waves.”
Despite the construction problems, school district officials paid Tutor-Saliba $15 million in 2010 to settle the firm’s claim that the district had caused delays.
The district says it is confident the buildings are safe. However, the district did not provide requested documentation showing the remaining issues had been resolved.
Although Kelly Schmader, Los Angeles Unified’s chief facilities executive, conceded the district struggled with the project, he said in a letter to the school board and district Superintendent John Deasy, “The Helen Bernstein High School is a perfect example of the district's commitment to school building and student safety.”
Board members plead ignorance
The school board is ultimately responsible for unsafe conditions. At Los Angeles Unified, board members ignored warnings from the district’s inspection department about deficient work and ballooning costs, Jones said.
Two former board members – Julie Korenstein and David Tokofsky – said they were not made aware of construction problems at Helen Bernstein before buildings were occupied, despite letters from the inspection department that were copied to the entire board during the time they were members.
“I’m shocked,” Korenstein said. “The whole thing is really horrible.”
Tokofsky, who left the board in 2010*, said he was used to hearing about projects with a list of 20 to 50 tasks to be completed. A list of 18,500 is unheard of, he said. “That seems galactic,” he said. “I mean that is massive.”
* smf: David left the Board in 2007
In an April 24, 2007, letter to Mónica García, the current Los Angeles Unified board president, and the rest of the board, Jones said the district’s project managers were routinely accepting low-quality work and overpaying the contractor. There is no record that the board responded.
García did not return a phone call and e-mail requesting comment.
“The schools are being built in a watered-down system that does not hold the safety of the kids as the most important thing,” said Jones, the former supervising inspector.
Intern Sam Pearson contributed to this report. This story was edited by Denise Zapata and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Interactive Map: Is your child's school near a fault? Did construction raise red flags? Learn more: http://projects.californiawatch.org/earthquakes/school-safety/
Interactive Graphic: Major California earthquakes since 1861: http://projects.californiawatch.org/earthquakes/california-earthquake-history/
Earthquake Safety Coloring Book: http://californiawatch.org/earthquakes/coloring-book
See if you live, work, or go to school near seismic hazards: http://myfaultapp.com/