Report 2011-116.1 Summary - December 2011
Department of General Services:
The Division of the State Architect Lacks Enforcement Authority and Has Weak Oversight Procedures, Increasing the Risk That School Construction Projects May Be Unsafe
Our review of the Department of General Services' implementation of the Field Act (act), revealed the following about the Division of the State Architect (division):
- While the division must certify school construction projects when they comply with the act, as of December 2010 approximately 16,400 projects statewide remained uncertified.
- Statewide, 23 percent of projects closed in the last three fiscal years remain uncertified.
- The division inconsistently used its authority to order districts to stop work on projects after identifying a potential threat to public safety.
- The division did not effectively document its determinations about the risk level of uncertified projects or to use these determinations to guide its approach to following up on those projects.
- The division's level of oversight of school construction processes is not comprehensive—of 24 projects we reviewed, three did not have evidence of any site visits by its field engineers and eight had evidence of only one site visit.
- Although districts must submit inspectors for approval prior to construction, for 22 of 34 projects we reviewed, the division did not approve the inspectors until after construction began.
- The division does not provide the same level of construction oversight for fire and life safety and accessibility as it does for structural safety even though it reviews plans for all three disciplines.
RESULTS IN BRIEF
As mandated by a state law known as the Field Act, the Division of the State Architect (division), part of the Department of General Services (department), supervises design and construction for K-12 schools and community colleges. The Field Act requires the department—which delegates its responsibilities to the division—to certify school construction projects when they comply with requirements in the act and with the building standards in Title 24 of the California Code of Regulations (building standards). However, a significant number of the State's school construction projects remain uncertified. Twenty-three percent of the projects that the division closed in the last three fiscal years remain uncertified. Statewide, the division closed more than 2,000 projects out of nearly 8,800 without certifying them during the last three fiscal years. As of December 2010 the division estimated there were approximately 16,400 uncertified projects in the State.
The number of uncertified projects may be in part due to the Field Act, which hampers the division's ability to ensure that projects comply with certification requirements. The act expressly allows school districts1 to occupy projects regardless of whether the division has certified them, and it does not grant the division sufficient authority to penalize school districts for noncompliance. The act does grant the division certain limited tools it could use to encourage districts to pursue certification; however, the division has used these tools infrequently and inconsistently. For example, the division has inconsistently used its authority to order districts to stop work on projects in situations where the division has identified a potential threat to public safety.
In addition, the division has failed to effectively document its determinations about the risk level of uncertified projects or to use these determinations to guide its approach to following up on those projects. Without well-documented decisions and a meaningful classification system, the division risks miscommunicating the true risks associated with uncertified projects. Moreover, by not using its classification system to drive its follow-up efforts regarding projects with outstanding issues, the division may miss an opportunity to encourage districts to address serious safety concerns. In recent years, the division has made infrequent attempts to complete such follow-up with school districts regarding uncertified projects. Since 2008 it has only performed such follow-up three times and can only speak to the success of one of those efforts.
Further, the division has not provided an effective, comprehensive level of oversight of school construction processes. Specifically, although the Field Act directs the division to visit sites as it deems necessary for enforcement of the act and for the safety of pupils, teachers, and the public, the division does not have a process for planning the oversight it will perform for projects of similar size and complexity. It also cannot demonstrate that it has provided adequate or consistent field oversight. For example, we found no evidence on file of site visits by its field engineers for three of 24 projects we reviewed; these projects had estimated costs of $270,000, $1.8 million, and $2.2 million. Additionally, we found evidence of only one site visit for each of eight other projects, three of which had estimated values over $500,000. This does not appear to be an adequate level of oversight given that, in a recent field pilot program, the division established criteria of a minimum of one visit by field engineers to all sites and monthly site visits for projects with construction activity lasting more than three months.
Because the division's field engineers spend a limited amount of time at each site, the division relies heavily on project inspectors—who are employees or contractors of the school districts—to ensure that districts build school projects according to approved plans. However, we noted several areas of concern related to the division's oversight of inspectors. Specifically, the relationship between inspectors and the entities involved in construction creates an inherent risk that construction may not comply with approved plans. Several of the division's regional managers indicated to us that school districts and contract managers sometimes interfere with the work of project inspectors. Nonetheless, the division has not implemented robust mitigation strategies. Moreover, in violation of regulations, school districts often start construction on projects before the division formally approves project inspectors. In our review of 34 projects, we found that the division had not approved the inspectors for 22 projects until a month after the districts had begun construction. Further, the division has sometimes excused inspectors from required trainings, has not always ensured that all inspectors have passed the current version of the inspector examination, and recently ceased its formal evaluation of inspector performance.
We noted additional problems with the division's construction oversight process as well. Although the division reviews plans for school construction projects in three disciplines—structural safety, fire and life safety, and accessibility—it does not provide a similar level of construction oversight in the latter two categories as it does for structural safety. Without conducting regular oversight of all aspects of the construction projects, the division risks that significant issues related to public safety may not receive the attention they deserve. Further, the division lacks performance measures for the construction and close-out phases of projects. Such standards could help the division identify areas needing improvement and then evaluate its success in making sure these improvements are completed over time. According to the manager of the division's Performance Metrics Section, the division has not developed performance measures for these phases because it lacks data. However, we identified several statistics that the division could use as performance measures that we believe would enable it to better assess the adequacy of its oversight.
To ensure public safety and to provide public assurance that school districts construct projects in accordance with approved plans, the department in conjunction with the division should pursue legislative changes to the Field Act that would prohibit occupancy in cases in which the division has identified significant safety concerns. Further, the Legislature should consider implementing additional penalties for school districts that do not provide all required documents.
To better use the enforcement tools at its disposal, the division should continue and expand its use of both orders to comply and stop work orders.
To ensure that it clearly justifies the reasons a project's noted issues merit a particular classification, the division should either modify its current policies regarding classifying types of uncertified projects or develop new policies, including requiring documentation of the rationale behind project-specific classifications. It should use its classifications to prioritize its efforts to follow up on uncertified projects based on risk and to better inform the public regarding the reasons it has not certified projects.
To reduce the number of uncertified projects, the division should implement initiatives to follow up with school districts on uncertified projects.
To ensure that it is providing adequate oversight of school construction projects, the division should develop and document an overall strategy that establishes specific expectations for conducting site visits and monitoring construction. The division should then record and compare its actual visits and monitoring efforts to its planned actions. The division should document explanations for any deviations from its plans.
To mitigate risks arising from the relationship among inspectors, school districts, and project managers, the division should develop formal procedures and explicit directions for field engineers to ensure that they establish a presence on project sites and provide adequate oversight of inspectors during construction.
To ensure that it approves inspectors before the start of project construction, the division should streamline its approval process by reviewing inspectors' workloads and past experience using the data it already maintains.
To ensure that certified inspectors are knowledgeable about current code requirements, the division should not excuse inspectors from required trainings and should improve its process for identifying expired certification exam scores.
To ensure that it formally monitors inspectors' performances, the division should reestablish a process for evaluating inspectors that provides consistent documentation of performance. The division should make this information accessible to appropriate staff.
To address areas in which its staff do not currently have expertise, the division should finalize the results of its field pilot program related to field oversight of accessibility-related and fire and life safety-related issues by qualified individuals.
To better manage its construction oversight and close-out functions, the division should develop performance measures to assess those functions and it should periodically report the results to the public on its Web site.
The department agreed with our recommendations and outlined steps the division will take to implement them.
1 The Field Act, building standards, and the division's interpretation of regulations use terms including school district, school board, and governing board of a school district to refer to local entities with responsibilities under the act. In our report, we use the term school district(s) or district(s).