Funding for Colo. school inspections OK’d |

Funding for Colo. school inspections OK’d

Steven K. Paulson
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

DENVER” State lawmakers approved $349,000 in emergency funding to hire inspectors for public schools on Tuesday following a state audit and fire officials’ complaints that many Colorado public schools have never received fire and building inspections.

“I think it’s really a potentially serious safety problem,” said Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee that sets state spending priorities.

The budget committee’s staff called for the emergency funding, saying in their recommendation to lawmakers that “the deficiencies need to be addressed immediately in order to ensure the safety of the state’s public schools.” They said failure to do it now could result in students being temporarily displaced while buildings are inspected.

Tapia said he was angered after several fire officials told The Associated Press they haven’t seen a state schools inspector in 20 years. A former state building inspector told the AP the state barred him from any inspection that required an overnight trip, making it nearly impossible to check schools on the Western Slope. He also revealed he was forced to issue certificates of occupancy based on blueprints and reports from engineers who designed the buildings.

Tapia, a civil engineer, said that worried him because he found in his own line of work that contractors don’t always follow blueprints.

According to records obtained by the AP under the Colorado Open Records Act, frustrated fire officials compiled a report for lawmakers in 2004 citing fires that got out of hand, school roofs that collapsed, and an elementary school where exposed electrical wiring was found the day before it was scheduled to open. Fortunately, no one was injured, they said.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also cited a state audit that found numerous fire and building code violations, including insufficient sprinklers, fire walls and exits in architectural drawings for 10 school projects. Some of the projects are completed and occupied and others are still under construction. Auditors said the failures presented a serious threat to public safety.

Under state law, the Joint Budget Committee has the authority to spend money if the Legislature isn’t in session and can document that an emergency exists.

The Department of Labor on Tuesday was given $271,000 to hire four inspectors and a temporary contract inspector to assist the state’s lone current inspector. The hiring is for six months, giving lawmakers time to come up with a more permanent solution.

The Department of Public Safety, which handles fire inspections on behalf of the labor department, was given $78,000. That money will be used to re-inspect 150 schools built over the past 18 months and to start on a backlog of 112 existing projects as the new school year begins.

Tapia said lawmakers want to transfer some of the authority for fire inspections from the state to local fire departments. They want to ensure fire officials get proper certification after state officials disclosed that many local fire inspectors weren’t certified for inspections.

Paul Cooke, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs’ Association, which represents 300 departments across the state, welcomed the additional state inspectors. But he said it would do little to address safety issues that were neglected over the past 20 years as schools were being built.

Cooke said lawmakers shouldn’t be surprised that local fire officials are not certified to do school safety inspections because 60 percent of Colorado’s firefighters are volunteers.

Tapia said lawmakers plan to address the certification issue when they convene in January, hoping to come up with a way to pay local fire departments for training, certification and inspecting older schools to make sure they at least meet basic health and safety requirements.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said Tuesday he has asked for a statewide safety audit of school buildings.

“We’re going to fast-track this so we can find a permanent solution,” he said.

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