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Earthquake ready? Some Washington schools not ready for ‘The Big One’

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DES MOINES, Wash. -- There’s a 15 percent chance of a magnitude 9 earthquake hitting our area, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

It’s been warning about the dangers of old, outdated schools not ready for The Big One Since the 1980s.  But school districts argue it all comes down to money.

Des Moines Elementary School, within the Highline Public Schools, was built in 1925 and hasn’t seen updates since.  A community committee recommended Highline Public Schools replace Des Moines Elementary and Highline High School.  But without the money, the school district argues it can’t be done.

“Scares me to death. Absolutely scares me to death,” said Des Moines Elementary grandparent Kristi Kelly.

Kelly has a grandson who attends Des Moines Elementary.  It’s a 91-year-old school she fears won’t hold up in a quake.

“It’s frightening that our kids are there in a school that is fairly rundown and is not prepared,” said Kelly.

The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network studies schools that will be impacted by an earthquake.

“There are numerous districts that have a 90% chance of very severe damage or even collapsing during an earthquake,” said Bill Steele, director of outreach and public information for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

But many districts say they just don’t have the money to retrofit schools for earthquakes.

“Unless we pass a voter-approved bond, we don’t have the funds to make the kinds of safety improvements that we would like to make for our schools,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, chief communications officer for Highline Public Schools.

Voters have failed to pass Highline Public School bonds for the past 10 years, leaving students at Des Moines Elementary and Highline High vulnerable.

“I think we need to find a way. Even if that means our taxes will go up because of it, just for the safety of our children,” said parent Angela Tessier, a resident of Des Moines.

Instead of looking at property taxes, our neighboring state of Oregon looked to its legislature.

“Putting about $125M a year into fixing their worst school districts and they’ve done a statewide assessment of their school districts,” said Steele.

The assessment of this school is clear.  The solution is to replace the building, not just retrofitting.

“There are ways to retrofit other buildings.  It’s expensive work and it doesn’t do the whole job that we need to do in terms of all the safety and educational improvements we want to make,” said Carbone Rogers.

So now the call is back on parents to make the change.

“They need to be lobbying and making some noise to the school district to improve that ...They may not be able to get to their children to a day or two after an earthquake,” said Steele.

The Seattle Public Schools released a statement reading, in part, "Since 2010, the district has earmarked $100 million from capital levies approved by Seattle voters for seismic retrofits at more than 50 schools."

Next week, the Highline School Board will vote to see if the bond issue recommended by the community committee should appear on the November ballot.

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