The business case for retrofitting schools

The business case for retrofitting schools

By Linda Baker

Last summer, I wrote a feature for Oregon Business about how the private sector helped pass Oregon’s education reform legislation — reforms business leaders argued would help improve the state’s long term economic outlook.

But in the ongoing discussion over education restructuring—and the role high quality K-20 schools play in educating, recruiting and retaining 21st century “knowledge workers” — the focus has been education content, not education facilities.

One aspect of school facilities management has been especially neglected: the need to seismically retrofit hundreds of K-12 classroom buildings.

The importance of the task cannot be overstated. More than 300,000 Oregon children attend school in buildings that could injure or kill them in a major earthquake. That major earthquake is coming. Scientists say there is a 40% probability of an 8.0 magnitude or higher seismic event striking the region in the next 50 years, a quake that is also expected to trigger a massive tsunami on the Oregon coast.

In an earthquake prone region, seismically safe schools should be a categorical imperative—and I say that not only because I suffered the anxiety of having kids who attended K-8 in a PPS building rated at 100 percent risk of collapse in an earthquake. And yet, as any parent knows, money for public education is in short supply, and seismic upgrades are often last on the list of a busy school district’s priorities.

Enter the private sector, which is stepping up its involvement in education policy. Seismic school safety may not be, specifically, a business problem. Yet the increasingly close relationship between private business and public education raises an intriguing question: Is there a business case for seismically retrofitting Oregon’s public schools? For answers, I turned to Edward Wolf, a local seismic school safety advocate and writer. His responses provide a fresh take on Oregon's seismic school safety challenges, while also highlighting the role secure school buildings, in addition to strong school services, assume in sustaining the state's economy.

OB:   Does business have a stake in the problem of quake deficient schools?

Wolf: Traditionally, seismic retrofits have been considered a safety investment, and for many people that is enough. But as Oregon comes to grips with the pervasiveness of the state’s earthquake risk, it’s now possible to enumerate the ways that seismic retrofit provides forms of risk reduction that benefit the broader economy.

The fact that seismic retrofit projects employ a range of labor-intensive building trades, achieving significant job creation as Oregon begins to emerge from the Great Recession, is an [important] business benefit. At the Floyd Light Middle School in East Portland, a comprehensive state-funded seismic retrofit last summer employed a general contractor, six subcontracting firms, and an average site crew of fifteen workers for three months. That business case explains itself.

OB: Is there a less obvious reason why school retrofits should matter to the business community?

Wolf: The insurance case is less familiar. As local communities and the state make long-term investments to modernize the energy and water systems of old school buildings--for example, in the state’s Cool Schools program — and to pay off those investments from the savings realized, seismic strengthening helps ensure that the payback will not be interrupted or ended by earthquake damage.

OB: What is the relationship between seismically safe schools and business continuity planning?

Wolf: One key to economic recovery from a regional disaster is a functional school system. Workers cannot return to their own jobs after a disaster if their children are unable to attend school. Seismic retrofits can ensure that at least some schools within a district remain intact and functional after an earthquake, and classes can resume. A normal school routine allows commerce to resume, freeing the main engine for recovery from disaster.

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.