There are roughly 1,000 K-12 schools in Utah, and researchers estimate at least 80 to 100 — maybe more — are so unstable that they would collapse in a major earthquake.
In the small sample of buildings they’ve examined, they found holes in foundations deep enough that you couldn’t see or touch the bottom. In a few, bricks were loose and slipping out of exterior walls at angles so odd that students could study them. In one, ceiling tiles randomly crashed down during the day. In another, there were visible cracks running up the hallways inside.
Many of those schools were constructed more than 60 years ago, before there were any building codes for earthquake safety. And seismologists predict the classrooms in them could be crushed in less than 60 seconds if the ground starts shaking as it’s expected to when “the big one” hits the state.
If that happens during the school day, the thousands of students and teachers who go to those schools could be trapped.
But despite at least five separate reports to the state in the past 26 years repeating those estimates and warnings over and over, Utah leaders have taken little action.
[Read more: How an “earthquake nut” prompted this Utah school district to make its buildings safer.]
Parents with kids at the schools that were included in that 2011 sample have a starting place to try to discover whether their child’s classroom is safe. But that list is now 10 years out of date. And others with kids at older schools not surveyed still have no way of finding out. In fact, the state doesn’t know exactly which school buildings are the most dangerous, because it’s declined several times to fully fund any formal study to follow up on the estimates, examine all aging schools and uncover the full extent of the risk.
That is deliberate.
“They thought if we identified the schools, then we’d be culpable if, or really when, kids died,” said former state Rep. Larry Wiley, a Democrat who represented West Valley City and pushed for years before he retired to have the state assess each K-12 building. His proposals never passed.
“They buried their heads in the sand even deeper with each report, each time these statistics were presented,” Wiley told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “So we’re still sending kids to these buildings and acting like nothing’s wrong.”
Wiley, a longtime building inspector, said: “We know better.”
The state also has rejected several bills and requests from school districts to fund construction where it’s needed to bring buildings up to seismic code. Leaders point to “local control” and say it’s up to school districts to assess what buildings need fixing and to budget for it.
That approach has created inequities between wealthier districts and lower income or less urban districts. In Salt Lake County, Murray, Jordan and Salt Lake City districts have been able to retrofit all of their buildings. But Granite District, which sits largely on the west side of the county, predicts it will take another 40 years for it to reach that point.
Seismologists and engineers say even the magnitude 5.7 earthquake that rattled Magna and much of Salt Lake County a year ago this month didn’t serve as a wake-up call. Several school buildings were severely damaged — including Granite’s West Lake STEM Junior High in Taylorsville, which will be permanently closed after bricks rained down from the roof in an entryway.
But with the pandemic pushing schools into online learning last spring, no kids were inside and nobody was hurt. That was extremely lucky, said Jessica Chappell, a member of the Utah Seismic Safety Commission.
She worries that the state doesn’t understand, though, and will continue to walk away from the problem as it has, even though a larger and more damaging quake is anticipated.
“We have dangerous schools,” she said. “It’s not a secret. I just don’t know what it’s going to take to spur some kind of response to that. How do we stop requiring kids to attend school in these unsafe buildings? These buildings that could collapse on them? These buildings that could kill them?”
So far, telling state leaders about the problem hasn’t worked.
‘We have failed to act’
Those who study earthquakes in Utah are angry and frustrated and disappointed.
The Wasatch fault, a 217-mile network of cracks in the earth stretching from the northern border of Utah down through Nephi, has a 57% chance of unleashing a magnitude 6 earthquake in the next 50 years, according to the Utah Geological Survey.
But, experts say, their findings have been ignored and unfunded. Nowhere more so than with schools.
“It would actually be more accurate to say the effort [to retrofit schools] has been starved of funds,” added Chappell, an engineer with Reaveley Engineers. The company has been hired by several districts — those that can afford it — to survey their school buildings after the state declined to fund safety assessments.
Even the seismic commission Chappell sits on, which was created by the state to inform it about earthquake risks, is staffed by volunteers who use their own time for research and are unpaid.
Members of the commission helped with the first major report specifically on schools presented to the state in 1995, the year after the group was formed. There was no response from the Legislature after the findings urged the state to develop a 10-year mitigation plan to improve the structure of schools and “not accept total vulnerability.”
Then, in 2006 — more than 10 years later, with still no plan in place — the Utah Geological Survey released another report with informal data from 17 of the state’s 41 school districts. Hundreds of schools, the researchers estimated, were out of compliance with earthquake codes.
They urged officials to determine every building that’s unsafe for students. That still hasn’t happened 15 years after the publication.
At the time, the Utah State Office of Education added in a follow-up memo that its records indicated roughly 58% of schools were built before 1975, when seismic safety became a requirement for construction. Not all of those will collapse, but they will all be unstable.
A few districts, especially those in rural or lower income areas, had a higher percentage of unstable buildings. In Box Elder, for instance, the district reported in 2006 that 24 of its 29 schools were not up to code. The facilities director there said, as of this year, five have been replaced; that would leave 19.
Some, though, said they couldn’t afford to even do the screenings — let alone replace any buildings. The then-chairman of the Utah Board of Education said at the time: “One day we may discover ourselves in an earthquake, and kids will be killed. We will be extremely embarrassed that we have failed to act.”
The board instructed districts to come up with their own 10-year plans, said Mark Peterson, the current spokesman. But there was no follow-up to ensure those were carried out or completed. The board also does not have the authority to allocate state funding to schools, so there was no check to cover the costs. The memo from the board encouraged its members to ask the Legislature for $25 million per year, plus inflation, for ten years to cover seismic safety upgrades. But their pleas were never answered and quickly fizzled out.
The inaction continued with another report in 2008. And another in 2011 — after the seismic commission won a federal grant to complete a “rapid visual screening” of 128 school buildings, to assess how well that sample would hold up in a major earthquake.
The in-person evaluations found that 77 of those structures were unlikely to withstand vigorous shaking; some might stay standing but with severe damage, others would collapse. None of those appeared to meet federal seismic guidelines.
The original report did not name the schools. But The Salt Lake Tribune submitted a public records request at the time and published the names of the 77 identified.
2011 seismic study of Utah schools by Courtney on Scribd
Since then, at least a dozen have been fixed within Salt Lake County. Some have been retrofitted, some are no longer in use and some have been rebuilt. There’s no inventory, though, showing which ones.
Barry Welliver, a structural engineer who owns his own company, BHW Engineers, was on the committee that pulled together the “Utah Students at Risk” report. He thought it would finally spur a statewide assessment of schools that need retrofitting.
At the Legislature, however, lawmakers told him there was nothing they could do, he said. After his presentation, ”a few individual legislators came up to me at the end and asked if their kid’s school was on the list,” he said. “They were worried about their own children.”
The seismic commission had projected that it would cost the state about $500,000 to screen every public school for earthquake risk. In the middle of Wiley’s unsuccessful five-year push for that funding, lawmakers approved a $227 million upgrade to make the Utah Capitol seismically safe.
In 2013, after pushback over that priority, they allocated a one-time payment for schools of $150,000. A list of the partial work done with that funding remains an unfinished draft, years later.
The fifth and most recent report came in 2016.
That included this dire note from the researcher, Ivan Wong, who’s considered a national expert on earthquake risks: “It saddens me, personally, that Utah has not taken the measures to take care of the schools. … I understand that the Legislature has competing priorities, but we can’t ignore this any more.”
Inequity and insufficient funds
It can cost $300 to $600 to assess one school, said Divya Chandrasekhar, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of City and Metropolitan Planning. Districts in richer neighborhoods, she noted, can typically get a bond passed to cover those studies and pay for construction.
But those in less well-off or more rural areas can’t do that as easily, and they also don’t collect as much property tax, which largely funds schools in Utah. “There needs to be a coordinated response,” Chandrasekhar said. “They cannot go about it alone.”
Leaving districts on their own has created a serious equity issue.
In Canyons School District, at the more affluent south end of Salt Lake County, just one school of the 44 there still has unreinforced masonry — an outdated structure of bricks and blocks without supporting steel — a spokesperson said. That’s Union Middle, which is scheduled to be rebuilt starting later this year. The project is funded with proceeds from the $283 million bond approved by voters in 2017. The district also has recently rebuilt Brighton High and Hillcrest High.
But neighboring Granite School District, which has one of the most diverse student populations in the state, — including the highest percentage of refugee families — says that 56% of its 94 schools are not up to seismic code. Most of those are elementaries, housing the youngest students in the state.
It has previously passed bonds and is saving funds, said spokesperson Ben Horsley. But hundreds of millions are needed for repairs, and it doesn’t want to overly tax its tax base.
Granite has paid for school screenings, which also found that it has the oldest buildings, on average, of any district in the state. For now, Horsley said, the district has about 10 or 12 schools that are at risk of collapsing in an earthquake. It is trying to reinforce its worst buildings enough so that they may experience damage, but won’t crumble.
It has not publicly released those names, but it does keep a website at gsdfuture.org to inform residents of construction projects underway.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that this is our role and responsibility as local boards,” Horsley added. “But we would hope there would be some funding attached to that to help.”
Davis School District said in 2011 that it didn’t have the funds to tear down buildings, as its enrollment was surging and it was trying to just find enough chairs for its students. At the time, it had five of the top ten most unsafe buildings in the state.
It also continues to have among the highest number of “portables” — smaller, modular classrooms placed outside schools to relieve overcrowding. Seismologists have worried for years about the safety of those because they’re not tethered to the ground.
The district has been working since the 2011 report to retrofit as much as it can, said Bryan Turner, director of architecture and new construction for the Davis School District, and it has addressed those five schools by tying the roofs to the exterior walls. It’s not as sturdy as a new building, but the expectation is that it stops schools from pancaking.
There are some federal grants available for retrofitting schools, Chandrasekhar noted. But it takes resources to apply for those and the pot is limited.
Based on the 2011 list — which found a number of hazardous schools that was equal to about 10% of the schools in the state — Chappell expects a similar percentage would be considered dangerous today. But without leaders being willing to fund a current, statewide screening of the remaining older schools, Chappell said, Utah is stuck on square one. “Really, we have to know what we’re dealing with first before we can go in and start fixing this,” she said.
State leaders believe it’s the responsibility of districts to fund school retrofitting and rebuild with their individual budgets. It’s part of the “local control” model popular among Republicans.
Senate President Stuart Adams declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, he noted lawmakers allocated nearly $500 million in ongoing funds to public education during the session that ended earlier this month.
“... We restored a 6 percent (WPU) increase in per-student funding, set aside $127 million for the future of education, funded public education enrollment growth and inflation and provided $121 million for public school teachers and staff bonuses,” Adams said.
But none of those funds is earmarked for buildings, and some couldn’t be applied to construction, such as the teacher bonuses. And the average cost to build a new high school, for example, in Utah — $145 million, according to estimates from districts — far exceeds what a district would be allocated from those appropriations.
Based on the 2006 survey, Nebo School District in Utah County, which sits at the end of the Wasatch Fault, said it needed three new high schools to replace structures built in the 1960s.
District spokeswoman Lana Hiskey said Nebo has broken ground on the first one, Spanish Fork High School, which will be finished in 2024. Then will come Payson High, then Springville High, expected to be done in 2026.
The district has passed three bonds, Hiskey said, but the first two went to building new schools because of the huge growth there. The last bond, passed in 2018, will go to the new high schools, in addition to $47 million that Nebo has saved over the last decade. “That’s why it got extended for so long, so we could afford it,” Hiskey said.
In his statement, Adams didn’t address districts with multiple unsafe schools but noted: “We will continue to work with school boards and school districts to understand needs.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Brad Wilson, who is a builder-developer, did not respond to requests for comment. In 2011, after the major seismic report on schools came out, he acknowledged: “It’s a concern. The last thing we want is for our teachers and our children to be in unsafe conditions.”
Gov. Spencer Cox also did not respond to The Tribune.
The Utah State Board of Education, which oversees K-12 schools in the state, pushed the onus onto districts, as well, noting, “they have to take it on themselves to address [buildings] at a local level.”
Additionally, the state leaves permitting for buildings to “local control,” meaning some cities and towns have less robust policies for schools and enforcing the seismic codes. And new buildings — even though generally safer — aren’t always inspected sufficiently.
Welliver blames that for the stone veneer falling off at Silver Crest Elementary in Jordan School District during the Magna earthquake last year. It wasn’t secure, and it wasn’t reviewed properly, he said. And students could have been hurt by the bricks tumbling off the façade in the entry.
Overall, if local districts don’t have the resources to make schools safe — and soon — Chandrasekhar believes, “the people who really need to step up are the legislators.”
When the Magna earthquake shook the Salt Lake Valley last March, tiles and bricks fell out of the ceiling at West Lake STEM Junior High with such force that the doors at one entryway were blocked and wouldn’t open without a pry bar.
Multiple walls partially collapsed, leaving the 58-year-old building unstable, and Granite School District will not be reopening it. It was one of least 20 damaged schools in the district, which is the closest to the fault in the county.
Horsley said Granite got a $37 million buyout from an insurance company and it will have to “find additional revenue” to cover the rebuild of West Lake. That will likely come from another smaller bond for $10 million or $20 million. The building, he noted, had made its way to the top of the district’s screening list and would have been addressed next. But the process moves slowly.
Chappell feels West Lake is a good example to show the state what’s in store if it doesn’t more urgently address these older, disintegrating schools. The magnitude 5.7 quake happened at 7 a.m., and she pictures students and teachers walking in early.
“It’s very reasonable to say that we would’ve had loss of life or injury,” had West Lake’s students not been learning from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
Chandrasekhar wants parents to help lobby the state to better protect kids. The Utah PTA has said it would also support those efforts.
The seismic commission said, too, that if the state won’t fund needed school assessments, it will continue to try cobbling together more federal grants to cover the remainder and create a complete inventory. Because it’s volunteer work, though, there’s no telling when the group might get that done.
The Magna quake, Chandrasekhar said, “should have been an eye-opener. I think it’s really important that people know their children are in significant danger.”
A magnitude 7 earthquake, for instance, she said, would have about 90 times more force. West Lake probably would’ve entirely crumpled under that pressure — as would others in the state.
But with no children inside the state’s closed schools, the Magna tremor became just another warning piled onto years of overlooked reports. And with the coronavirus and the later windstorm, the seismic safety of schools was soon forgotten again.