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We know hundreds of Utah's schools are on shaky ground: Some sit directly atop fault lines overdue for major earthquakes. And we know many of those schools were built before seismic codes were instituted, meaning they could collapse on students in a strong quake.

"The scariest thing is what we don't know," said Gary Christenson, manager of the geologic hazards program for the Utah Geologic Survey. "Districts are reluctant to frighten parents. They don't want to reveal which schools are on the most vulnerable sites, which are the least safe."

A preliminary report presented in early April to the state school board shows that hundreds of Utah schools do not meet seismic codes and that it would take billions of dollars to bring them into compliance. Efforts to address seismic problems vary from district to district, according to the report.

Only 17 of Utah's 40 school districts responded to the survey on which the report is based. The survey asked districts how many schools do not meet seismic codes, but did not ask them to specify schools that are at greatest risk.

Larry Newton, director of school finances for the Utah State Office of Education, directed the survey for the state school board.

"That little survey was just a preliminary thing," Newton said. "We don't really know down to the building level how big the problem is. It takes resources in order to ascertain that."

Utah has strengthened seismic codes for site selection and construction of new schools and school additions, Newton said. But he believes it's time to focus on the safety of schools built before the 1970s, when seismic codes were adopted.

"We are good at making do with what we've got," Newton said, "but there is a downside to that. We have a lot of older buildings that are going to need a lot of attention."

The state school board is considering the problem, but solutions will be expensive, said Kim Burningham, state school board chairman.

"There is tremendous pressure for the money we have in this state. Based on those precious limited resources, there is a kind of incentive to bury your head in the sand, but we cannot do that. We've got to face up to the fact that we have lots of kids, and we've got to pay for them and that includes seismic upgrades for schools.

"One day we may discover ourselves in an earthquake, and kids will be killed," Burningham said. "We will be extremely embarrassed that we have failed to act."

Some districts in the area of highest risk - Brigham City to Nephi, according to earthquake specialists - are addressing the problem, or soon will. Salt Lake City District began seismic rebuilding projects on older schools 15 years ago, starting with its most vulnerable schools. Bonds passed by voters during the 1990s provided funds for the $200 million project, which is nearly complete.

Voters in Provo School District and Davis School District face bond elections this year; much of the revenue will go to seismic improvements if the bonds pass.

Historically, school buildings have been the responsibility of districts, and Burningham believes decision-making about seismic issues should remain there. But some districts might not have financial resources to make schools safe, Burningham said.

He believes a uniform inspection of school seismic safety is needed, so projects can be prioritized throughout the state according to need.

"Then, perhaps incentives for districts could be mandated at the state level," Burningham said.

That sounds good to Steve Carter, building official for Nebo School District. Voter-approved bond money is used to address rampant growth. Schools are strengthened seismically when additions are built, Carter said, so most district buildings have received some attention. The exceptions are Nebo's three high schools built in the 1960s; their masonry walls could tumble in an earthquake. Current plans call for replacing the high schools in 15 years.

Walter Arabasz, director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, said improving the seismic safety of schools along the Wasatch Front is crucial and may require state cooperation.

"If there are 'have-not' and 'have' jurisdictions, it seems fair that the policy discussions rise to a higher level," Arabasz said. Recent history provides a reason.

"One of the greatest tragedies of the Pakistani earthquake is that it happened during the school day, and many injuries and fatalities occurred in schools," Arabasz said.

Twenty-four schools in Alpine School District were built before 1970 and probably do not meet seismic codes. The district is planning seismic inspections and hopes to obtain funds for retrofits though a bond election. Cost estimates for the retrofits will be available after the inspections.

Vulnerable schools?

Many Utah scientists believe that if a major earthquake strikes Utah, its epicenter will be along the Wasatch Front, somewhere between Brigham City and Nephi. Improving seismic safety of schools in the fault zone varies from district to district. Areas experiencing fast growth tend to have a higher percentage of new schools that meet modern seismic codes. The Utah Board of Education is considering asking the Legislature to fund a statewide study of schools' seismic vulnerability. An informal survey by the board found:

* Twenty-four of Box Elder District's 29 buildings do not meet seismic codes. The average year of original construction is 1962, and several schools date to the turn of the 20th century. The cost to bring all schools up to seismic code is an estimated $360 million.

* In Davis School District, 10 schools have been replaced, and another will be demolished with recent bond money. Structural improvements have been made to some older schools. Thirty-seven schools still have seismic problems. Replacing them could cost $570 million.

* Granite School District has 73 schools that do not meet seismic code. The cost to upgrade schools and other district buildings is estimated at $253 million.

* Jordan School District assessed its schools in 1990 and started a program of retrofitting or rebuilding those susceptible to earthquake damage.

* Thanks to a 15-year project financed by bonds, all of Salt Lake City School District's buildings meet seismic code, with minor qualifications. Three schools remain to be remodeled or rebuilt.

* In Weber School District, 29 schools were built before 1973. Many have had seismic upgrades during additions. The district plans to replace its oldest and most unsafe schools.

* Provo School District has nine pre-1973 schools and another five with sections older than 1973. The district plans a bond election for replacing some schools and incremental upgrades of others.