Short-term solution is now long-term necessity for overcrowded schools

Friday, January 1, 1904

All that's missing is the pink flamingos.

Sitting behind Sale Creek Middle/High School are enough double-wide mobile trailers to start a small trailer park. The trailers, covered in a chipped beige paint, are connected by a maze of wood decking and leaky metal overhangs.

Inside, it doesn't get much better.

The trailer that houses Kristie Magee and Deanne Mulder's classrooms is fraught with water, insect and vermin problems. Aside from the physical problems, the teachers say they and their students can feel disconnected from the main school.

And they're definitely not alone -- all of Sale Creek's middle school students are housed in portable classrooms, save one class.

These portable classrooms have become the norm for dozens of Hamilton County teachers and hundreds of students. What started as a temporary Band-Aid more than 35 years ago to alleviate overcrowding has turned into a long-term solution. About 30 of the district's 79 schools currently have portables.

Such use of trailers as classrooms is common fare for schools across the United States.

The Modular Building Institute, the trade group for modular construction, estimates there are 180,000 portable classrooms currently in use across the nation's school districts. More than half of those units are in the high-growth states of California, Florida and Texas.

Some education officials now say Hamilton County has grown too reliant on its aging stock of 110 portables, most of which are at least 30 years old. The district has only purchased about a dozen new portables in the last 35 years, said Assistant Superintendent for Auxiliary Services Gary Waters.

"It's become convenient to have a portable classroom," said School Board Chairman Mike Evatt. "It is a very short-term fix that has become a long-term problem."

Evatt said the district's outdated units need to be removed.

"We just need to get rid of them," he said. "They're high-maintenance and too costly to relocate."

It costs between $20,000 and $23,000 each time a portable is transported, Waters said, a price which includes utility connections and installation of awnings and sidewalks.

The alternatives, though -- renovations, additions or new construction -- are even more expensive, sometimes running into the millions of dollars. A double-wide portable trailer containing two classrooms costs about $65,000.

Planned renovations and additions in Hamilton County Schools are projected to cost between $2.2 million and $10.5 million each. As for an entire new school, the 1,000-student Ooltewah Elementary -- Hamilton County's next planned school construction project -- is estimated to cost $23 million.

Portables are "far cheaper," Waters said, "but you don't get the longevity."

And as Sale Creek has learned, portables can't always be the answer to growth. The school had a few portables before a wing of permanent classrooms was added in 2003. But by the next school year, portables were necessary again, officials said. Today, Sale Creek has 10 classrooms in five portables.

But because of issues with underground septic systems, the school is now unable to add more portables, said Principal Robin Copp. Sale Creek is on phase I of the district's facility plan for a $10.5 million addition, though some officials are considering building a new school entirely.*

The physical distance between portable classrooms and other parts of a school's main building can sometimes be an inconvenience for teachers. Students and teachers usually must brave the elements to go to the bathroom, go to lunch or get a drink of water.

And switching classes takes longer with portables, especially at Sale Creek, where students must venture into the main building to visit their lockers.

When they do travel from their classroom to the main building, Mulder, a sixth-grade math and social studies teacher, said the covered walkway leaks during rain and gets icy in the winter. Inside the classrooms, rain seeps into the carpet near the entrance and leaves a musty smell. It's also significantly louder during storms.

"You can not speak over it when it rains," said Magee, also a sixth-grade math and social studies teacher.

Some of Hamilton County's portables have restrooms, but most don't. Newer portable units sometimes contain interior hallways, restrooms and drinking fountains. But because of their age, most of Hamilton County's portables don't have such amenities, Waters said.

Despite the drawbacks, many teachers don't seem to mind working in a portable, Waters said. Some even relish the relative quiet and calm compared to the main building. Others like the fact that they can control their own heating and air systems, while many schools are climate-controlled by the central office.

Still, Waters agreed that Hamilton County relies on portables too much.

"We have way too many portables in the system in my opinion," Waters said.

But he said portable classrooms are the district's only way to quickly respond to school crowding. Because they're mobile, they can easily shift between schools.

* * *

With 10 portable classrooms, Ganns Middle Valley Elementary School has one of the county's largest collections of trailers. But Principal Sandra Jerardi said the rows of portables don't affect student instruction.

"Children learn just as well and teachers teach just as well in a portable, if it's well maintained," she said.

The biggest problems at schools like Ganns are operational, Jerardi said. The building itself was meant to hold no more than 400 students. In all, the school has 578 students.

"It's not the portables as much as the number of bathrooms to service this many children, the number of water fountains," she said. "The portables, you can deal with."

All third-grade teachers are in portables at Ganns, so those teachers can still collaborate easily, she said.

"If they're close together, it doesn't seem to bother them," Jerardi said. "It's that camaraderie, that professional learning community we try to build among teachers, you can feel sort of left out if you're in a portable and all your peers are inside."

* * *

While portables serve as a cheap, quick fix, there are some associated long-term costs. Evatt pointed to the thousands of dollars it takes to move the units. That's all money, he said, that comes out of the system's maintenance fund.

He would know. He helped move many of them before he retired from the school system's building and grounds department in 2007.

But, he said, there will always be some need for the trailers, because there's no other way to provide additional school capacity quickly.

"We're always going to have portables," he said.