Robert Gehrke: It’s unfathomable that we’re still sending kids to schools that could collapse in an earthquake. It’s time to do better.

Last year’s Magna quake should wake up Utah leaders. We need to act now to avoid the worst later.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s hard to imagine sending kids to school in a building that has faulty wiring or asbestos in the walls, or is a fire hazard. We wouldn’t do it.

But every day, kids in Utah — we don’t know exactly how many — attend class in buildings that are ill-equipped to withstand an earthquake that we know is in our future. And we’ve been doing this not for a year or two or five, but for decades.

Some districts, those that have the money to do it, have chipped away at the problem, retrofitting some older schools, replacing others entirely. But as my colleague Courtney Tanner reported last week, experts estimate that as many as 80 to 100 Utah schools may not be able to withstand a significant quake.

Several schools saw damage, some of it considerable, in last year’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna. Bricks at the West Lake STEM Junior High in Taylorsville rained down in an entryway, leaving a pile of rubble inside the front doors.

Fortunately, because of the pandemic, there were no students at the school and nobody was injured, but it’s easy to imagine how it could have ended differently. The school will not reopen.

Years ago, I wrote about efforts by Rep. Larry Wiley, who was a building inspector, to at least get the state to inventory its buildings and identify those at high risk. And each year, he came away frustrated because, if the state knew which buildings were dangerous, there could be liability if they collapse.

Going all the way back to 1995, the Utah Seismic Safety Commission has repeatedly warned of deficiencies in schools.

In 2006, the Utah Geological Survey cautioned that there were hundreds of schools that did not meet earthquake codes.

In 2008, the seismic commission issued another report, and then another in 2011, that found 77 of 128 schools that were visually inspected posed potential risks. The commission’s most recent report came in 2016.

“It’s not a secret. I just don’t know what it’s going to take to spur some kind of response to that,” Jessica Chappell, a member of the commission, told Tanner. “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?”

We’ve been fortunate that the worst hasn’t happened. We’ve also been complacent, gambling with children’s lives that it will wait, that the quake won’t come or that the buildings will withstand the shaking.

Last year’s Magna quake should wake up Utah leaders. We need to act now to avoid the worst later — and it can’t simply be left to the districts.

There are federal grants available and districts are finding them. In 2011 and 2013, the Murray School District received three hazard mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency totaling $2.9 million that were coupled with $4 million of district money to retrofit 10 schools that had been identified as needing upgrades.

The Murray schools rode out last year’s Magna quake with virtually no damage, faring much better than schools of a similar age and design that had not been renovated.

There could be more federal money coming Utah’s way. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure blueprint proposes spending $100 billion nationwide on new school construction and renovations to existing buildings.

But there is a role for the state to play, as well, and a potential model Utah could follow.

Back in 2006, California implemented a $200 million statewide Seismic Mitigation Program, enabling schools — particularly those with limited financial resources — to apply for matching grants to retrofit, renovate and in some instances rebuild schools to mitigate earthquake risks.

Utah likely wouldn’t need to sink $200 million into the renovations to help districts struggling to come up with the funding make the necessarily improvements, and the safety of kids in schools shouldn’t boil down to the haves and the have-nots.

Last session, the Legislature had $1.3 billion in one-time money (the kind of revenue that is typically spent on buildings, equipment purchases and could be spent on retrofitting schools) to spend.

If lawmakers invested even a sliver of that money over the course of a few years, it could make a tremendous difference between students riding out the next big quake or having walls falling in around them.

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