Oregon Senate president wants money to earthquake-proof schools

Oregon Senate president wants money to earthquake-proof schools
FILE -- Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney on Tuesday called for the state to take on $200 million in debt to help prepare school buildings for a devastating earthquake that scientists say could come at any time.
   
A 2007 analysis of Oregon's school buildings found that more than 1,000 were at a high or very high risk of collapsing in a major quake.
   
"We do have this responsibility to the children to get the schools to the point where they can take this kind of hit," Courtney, a Salem Democrat, said at a news conference at a Salem elementary school.
   
Experts say the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon coast shifts on average every 300 years, causing massive earthquakes on par with the magnitude-9.0 temblor that shook Japan in 2011. The last Cascadia earthquake was in 1700.
   
School construction is generally the responsibility of local school districts. Some have done more than others to retrofit their buildings, often with bonds approved by voters. Courtney said the money would be available to all schools without regard to how much money local taxpayers have committed.
   
Courtney has long advocated improvements in earthquake safety at schools, but fixes often lose out to other priorities in the Legislature. The proposal could face better odds next year, however, as lawmakers look at retrofitting their own offices in the state Capitol.
   
Republicans signaled it won't be an easy slam dunk. They criticized Courtney's move and said school upgrades should take precedence over capital improvements that are estimated to cost at least $250 million. The GOP has targeted Courtney in the November election, but he's the front-runner in a district that favors Democrats.
   
"I'm not opposed to improving the capitol and making sure that it's seismically safe," said state Rep. Mike McLane, the top Republican in the House. "But before I'm going to vote for $300 million of taxpayer money in order to make it safe ... I think we have to first say, 'What other places are we going to make safe in a big earthquake?'"
   
The $200 million Courtney is requesting would fund grants up to $1.5 million per school through an existing seismic retrofit program. It would be a significant increase over the $34 million that lawmakers have allocated to school retrofits since 2005.
   
Some schools can be retrofitted for less than the $1.5 million grants, while others have required significantly more money, said Gloria Zacharias, who manages the grant program for the Oregon Business Development Department. A school's size, soil and construction materials have a big impact on its vulnerability and the price tag for stabilizing it.
   
Chirsty Perry, superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, said her district has used its own bonding authority to prepare some of its schools for earthquakes. But there's more work to do, she said, and the state money would be a boost.
   
State bonding is limited to ensure debt payments don't consume more than 5 percent of the general fund budget each year. Experts last year estimated that an average of about $850 million in bonding capacity will be available in each of the next four budget cycles, but an exact tally hasn't been calculated.
   
Between the capitol and schools projects, lawmakers are likely to consider spending at least half of their bonding capacity on earthquake retrofits, which would limit the money available for new buildings for state agencies, community colleges and universities.
   
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Online:
   
Seismic study: http://www.oregongeology.org/sub/projects/rvs/OFR-O-07-02-SNAA-onscreen.pdf (schools list begins on Page 91)

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