Oregon official wants money to earthquake-proof schools

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney on Tuesday called for the state to take on $200 million in debt to help prepare school buildings for a devastating earthquake that scientists say could come at any time.

A 2007 analysis of Oregon’s school buildings found that more than 1,000 were at a high or very high risk of collapsing in a major quake.

“We do have this responsibility to the children to get the schools to the point where they can take this kind of hit,” Courtney, a Salem Democrat, said at a news conference at a Salem elementary school.

Experts say the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon coast shifts on average every 300 years, causing massive earthquakes on par with the magnitude-9.0 temblor that shook Japan in 2011. The last Cascadia earthquake was in 1700.

School construction is generally the responsibility of local school districts. Some have done more than others to retrofit their buildings, often with bonds approved by voters. Courtney said the money would be available to all schools without regard to how much money local taxpayers have committed.

Courtney has long advocated improvements in earthquake safety at schools, but fixes often lose out to other priorities in the Legislature. The proposal could face better odds next year, however, as lawmakers look at retrofitting their own offices in the state Capitol.

Republicans criticized Courtney’s move, saying school upgrades should take precedence over the Capitol improvements. The GOP has targeted Courtney in the November election, but he’s the front-runner in a district that favors Democrats.

The $200 million Courtney is requesting would fund grants up to $1.5 million per school. Some schools can be retrofitted for less, while others would require significantly more money, depending on their construction materials, soil and size.

State bonding is limited to ensure debt payments don’t overtake too large a share of the budget.

Courtney said it appears the state will have between $800 million and $900 million in bonding capacity next year. With the state Capitol project estimated to cost more than $200 million, lawmakers will be considering spending at least half their bonding capacity on earthquake retrofits, which would limit the money available for new buildings for state agencies, community colleges and other government programs.

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