Hundreds of Utah public schools would be unsafe, and potentially deadly, places to be in the event of a major earthquake, according to a State Office of Education survey of 17 of Utah's 40 school districts.

School buildings are largely a local school district matter, and districts vary in their compliance to oft-changing seismic codes, the state reports. Bringing all up to seismic safety codes could cost billions of dollars — tough to come by in a state that spends the least per student in the country.

But the State Board of Education worries about the potential for injury and loss of life in the event of "the big one" in geological fault-heavy Utah. It's talking about a way to get more involved in building safety.

"The worst thing we could do is somehow try and put off (action) in this area and then have an earthquake," board member Randall Mackey said. "I'd like to see this be one of our top priorities."

The probability of a large earthquake along the Wasatch Front is 16 percent in the next 50 years, the Geological Survey has reported. Yet assuming earthquakes occur regularly and not randomly, the probability of a major earthquake in Salt Lake City may be as high as 57 percent in 100 years.

But many buildings are unprepared. Seismic considerations didn't become part of building codes until after lessons learned from 1971 San Fernando earthquake in California. The state Division of Emergency Services a few years ago estimated about half Utah's 800-plus schools had sections built before 1975.

School district efforts to address the problem vary.

Salt Lake City School District is finishing a project to replace or retrofit every school there, thanks to more than $200 million in bonds voters OK'd in the 1990s.

In the growing Washington School District, 28 of 36 buildings are up to code. In Alpine, nearly two-thirds of schools meet or somewhat meet seismic safety codes, the state reports.

But in Box Elder, 24 of 29 schools are not up to code.

San Juan would need $100 million to bring 11 of its 12 buildings up to code.

Provo District this summer will seek a $35 million bond to build and improve its schools. The state report says the district has two schools where none of the square footage was built post-1973.

Granite would need $253 million to seismically upgrade the 79 buildings there that do not meet code. The average age of its schools exceeds 45 years, and just 15 schools, the state reports, are up to code.

The debt-free district has a pay-as-you-go plan to upgrade buildings, whose average age exceeds 45 years. But it might gauge public opinion on a bond to upgrade school buildings, among other issues, assistant to the superintendent and attorney Martin Bates said. Meanwhile, the district is improving safety each time a school is remodeled, he said, such as tying replaced roofs to walls.

Davis, where the state reports that after this year, 37 schools will need attention to seismic code, is doing the same thing. It also is seeking a $230 million bond in a June election to build new buildings and fix others. For the past two months, an engineering firm has been studying older buildings for seismic safety; a report is expected mid-summer.

Replacing all Davis schools for seismic safety would cost up to $570 million, the state report says.

"I think what we do is we do the best we can," Davis spokesman Chris Williams said.

State Board of Education member Tim Beagley understands the enormity of bringing schools up to code. But, he adds, it's "something we probably should be looking at."

Randy Haslam, director of new construction at Jordan School District who helped pen a school seismic safety guide for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, suggests a study to determine the problem and where tremblers could wreak the most havoc.

South Summit District appears a little ahead of that curve; the state reports it is requiring an official seismic study as part of its next five-year building plan, in which arrangements would be made for needed improvements.

The State Office of Education just purchased asset management software for schools to help address the issue. "That's not being done anywhere nationally," said Larry Newton, office director of school finance and statistics, who prepared the seismic report.

The state board also expects to get more involved.

"We would like to come up with some course of action," Beagley said. "We will likely have some recommendations in the next few board meetings."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com