Alameda County

Alameda Elementary School to Shutter ‘Indefinitely' Due to Earthquake Safety Concerns

Despite opposition from scores of parents, the Alameda Unified School District Board of Education on Tuesday night voted to shutter Donald D. Lum Elementary School in June on grounds that the campus is ill-equipped to sustain earthquakes and poses an “enormous” danger to students.

Students currently attending the school will likely be scattered to nearby elementary schools next fall, although specific resettling plans have not been finalized. The school will be closed "indefinitely," according to the passed resolution.

Clad in red, the school’s color, parents and kids packed City Hall chambers at 6 p.m. for the vote. For more than three hours, they futilely demanded that the school board keep Lum open while additional engineers conduct reports on school’s the structural integrity. More than 1,200 people signed a petition and 46 people sent emails opposing the closure, according to city staff. 

The board members, some of whom have former ties to the campus, said closing the school weighed heavily on their minds since receiving the damning seismic report in April. At least a dozen elementary school students begged them to change course during public comment, testimony that Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said he took to heart. 

“This is a decision that is much bigger than any of us,” McPhetridge said, apologizing to the community. “This is not easy on you, and this is not easy on my colleagues. I wish things were different. I wish I did not know what I know, but it is my legal, moral and professional obligation to make the recommendation, and I stand by it.” 

<blockquote class="twitter-video" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Rally for Lum Elementary at Alameda City Hall. Lum faces closure bc district says it's not earthquake safe. Parents want more research first <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Gillian Edevane (@GillianNBC) <a href="">May 24, 2017</a></blockquote>
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He acknowledged that the closure was tantamount to “breaking up the community,” but said he felt that there was no other option.

The district administration had recommended closing the school in April after a 1-page seismic report found that Lum’s sand-packed soils would render the campus unsafe in the event of a major earthquake. Test samples of the soil revealed that classrooms would sink and settle if a quake were to hit due to a weakening process that engineers call liquefaction. 

Alameda schools risk liquefaction if their foundations are put under extreme stress, but Lum is especially susceptible to it, according to engineers who presented a report to the board. Board trustee Jennifer Williams recalled Alameda Unified School District architect Mark Quattrocchi telling them keeping the school open was tantamount to “gambling” with student safety. 

Parents have contested that report, conducted by ZFA Structural Engineers, and have produced their own experts.

Calin Smith, who works for a Berkeley-based engineering firm, told the board that there could be other options aside from closure, including extensive retrofitting. That process would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and could take years or months, depending on the circumstances of the repairs.

Crestfallen after the meeting, parents and students described feeling gutted by the vote. With only two weeks left before school lets out for summer vacation, parents are left wondering which school their child will attend in the fall. It is expected that students will be scattered among several nearby campuses, including Edison, Franklin, Haight, Maya Lin, Paden and Otis elementary schools, according to district plans.

Martin Stoufer, whose daughter attends Lum Elementary, said he would accept closure if there had been a consensus among several qualified experts. He feels the school board didn’t go through that process. 

“It all happened so quickly,” he said. “If there had been that consensus, we would be unhappy, but we’d accept it and everyone would understand. This isn’t that. It really feels like they’re trying to railroad this through.”

His daughter, Elinor, 10, doesn’t know where she will attend school for her final year in elementary. She said she hopes she can stay with her friends.

During public comment, several people reminded the trustees that they are elected officials and that the vote may hurt their chances at re-election. 

That did not appear to impact trustees' decision. 

“If something happened, I would not be able to live with myself if I could have moved students and I didn’t,” reasoned board Trustee Gray Harris, amid shouts from parents who condemned the school board’s decision. “It’s not an easy choice ... but it’s about their safety." 

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