Realistic Planning With Portable Classrooms

The negative perceptions of trailers as classrooms stem from a variety of issues. The trailers are often placed in remote areas taking up valuable parking or athletic fields and require an uncovered walk through inclement weather just to use the cafeteria, gym, library or restrooms. The trailers are an eyesore with exteriors reminiscent of mobile home parks. Trailers are the visual reminder of less than optimal planning and are perceived to offer a substandard, unsafe, inferior learning environment. .

Many of the criticisms about portable classrooms are justified. Yet despite very vocal opposition, the use of portable classrooms by public school systems continues to grow at more than 20 percent every year. This growth is fueled by ever increasing enrollments, intra-district shifts, the push for earlier education for children and continuing adult education, the drive for lower student-teacher ratios, an aged facilities infrastructure and seemingly ever tightening access to adequate funding. Moreover, the demand for portable classrooms is increasing as private schools and the new wave of charter schools seek quick, lower cost construction. .

The criticisms leveled at portable classrooms are a by-product of the procurement process. The current procurement process generally looks no further than one year and attempts to get as much space as possible for the least amount of money. Unless and until portable classrooms are incorporated as part of a long-term facilities strategy, the criticisms will be fully justified. It is often not economically feasible to eliminate portable classrooms. It may be far easier to alter the procurement process. .

With few exceptions, a public school system solicits bids from qualified vendors to provide portable classrooms. A school system can acquire the use of portable classrooms in one of three ways: a) by purchasing the classrooms with funds from a capital budget; b) by purchasing the classrooms through time with a finance lease with funds from a capital budget; or c) by leasing the classrooms generally on a year-to-year basis with funds from an operating budget. .

The decision to purchase (either outright or through time with a finance lease) or lease a classroom is both political and economic. The availability of capital monies often depends on voter approval, and voter approval depends on numerous factors including current economic conditions, the economic outlook and average population age. Allocation of available capital monies depends on a variety of issues at the local level, including the age and overcrowding of existing facilities, and has been profoundly affected by the increasing requirements of technology. .

Not only does it seem that every school needs more computers, but each must be rewired to accommodate the intranet age. Rewiring existing facilities can be an extremely costly proposition in light of building code changes through the years. Generally, it seems that the older the facility, the more costly the rewiring. This raises the issue of facilities replacement and places overall facilities planning directly in the limelight. .

The requirement to systematically replace aged schools and to address the pressing need for enhanced technology capabilities can stretch the capital budget to the breaking point. While overcrowding is an important issue, priorities can relegate the perceived need for temporary space to the operating side of the budget. .

Operating monies are expenditures for short-term benefits, that is, you can lease a portable classroom, but the monthly payment does not build any equity. Thus, the object of the solicitation process for portable classrooms is to get as much as you can, this year, for every dollar spent. .

If your goal is to provide space for as many students as possible for the least amount of money, then the specifications which accompany the solicitation package request the bare minimum. Your request demands the cheapest doors; the cheapest interior and exterior wall finishes; the cheapest light fixtures, windows, heating and air conditioning units; the cheapest floor coverings; and the cheapest roof and wood supports. While all components meet appropriate federal and state building codes, the useful life of the individual components is limited. .

The life of the most austere portable classroom built to code is a direct function of the maintenance policy and the number of times the classroom is relocated. A hollow metal door on a simple frame cannot withstand much abuse before it breaks. Light gauge aluminum on the exterior of a classroom can only withstand the elements for a few years before painting or replacement is required. Air conditioning units with disregarded filters will foul the air. Aggressive floor mopping, with excess water left to find its own way out of the classroom, will rot floors and walls. Minor roof leaks that are either ignored or undetected can ruin walls and floors in a few short years. While a good maintenance policy should be in effect for all types of facilities, substandard maintenance will be far more visible, far earlier, in facilities of cheaper components. .

Everyone wants a quality learning environment for our children. This simple goal will never be attained if the need for short-term space is always filled with the cheapest portable classrooms money can buy. The problem is not that minimum specification trailers deteriorate rapidly with poor maintenance; the problem is that a perceived short-term requirement turns out to be long term. .

The State of Florida found the average age of a temporary portable classroom was 19 years. The same is undoubtedly true in many other jurisdictions. In fact, Florida found many portable classrooms built to bare minimum standards in use for more than 40 years. Even if the classroom had never been relocated, think of the repairs required during those years to maintain a substandard learning environment. .

This fiscal blunder is even worse if the classroom is leased rather than owned. During 40 years, a school system would have made aggregate rent payments to the lessor of six to eight times the original cost of the classroom and would have spent funds for maintenance of between two to four times the original cost of the classroom, all because capital funds were not allocated at the outset. Capital funds were not made available because the need for additional space was deemed temporary and thus of a lower priority. .

Portable classrooms can be built today with long-lived components that are aesthetically pleasing. The new specification for Florida portable classrooms has eliminated wood and replaced this basic material with concrete and steel. The noncombustible classroom has upgraded interior finishes, solid steel doors and frames with solid locksets, a rubber roof to eliminate leaks, an upgraded heating and air conditioning system to improve air circulation and air quality, and a vastly superior exterior that is both visually appealing and has a 50-year life. .

Portable classrooms can be built with exactly the same materials used in a site-constructed school. The question is whether the additional cost is justified given the perceived temporary space requirement. An upgraded noncombustible portable classroom costs from 150 to 175 percent of the cost of the cheapest alternative and will have a useful life of at least three times the basic unit. In addition, maintenance costs are far lower and operating costs (such as electric consumption) are lower. If relocatable space is required to handle increasing enrollments, shifting intra-district students, the requirement to lower student-teacher ratios and to offer more pre-K and adult education classes, and the need exceeds five years, it is fiscally irresponsible to propose specifications for the cheapest factory built classroom available. .

Portable classrooms allow planners to factor in intra-district relocations, thus extending the useful life of a particular classroom beyond the initial site. Portable classrooms should be an integral part of every master plan for a new permanent school. Utilities should be run to the anticipated locations so that the eventual installation is as economical as possible. Many portables today are installed without restrooms because the cost of bringing water and sewer lines out to the buildings is prohibitive. The cost of running these utilities during construction of the permanent school is far less. In addition, portables should be master planned to incorporate a covered walkway system so the children are not exposed to the elements when they go to the gym or the library. .

Finally, portable classrooms should be built of the most durable products available consistent with the anticipated use period. The new noncombustible classrooms offer a bona fide alternative to conventional construction in terms of aesthetics and quality of the learning environment. The noncombustible classrooms offer speed of delivery, ease of relocation and the ability to lease a classroom for a period of intended use with no penalty on discontinuing the use. Even owned portable classrooms can be sold when they are no longer needed. .

The seemingly endless complaints about inferior classroom trailers will continue as long as the portables are an afterthought brought in to offer a short-term solution. Unless portable classrooms are viewed as part of the permanent facilities plan, public school districts will continue to overpay for substandard classrooms. .

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Michael I. Roman serves as president of the Modular Building Institute. He also is chief executive officer of Resun Leasing, Inc., based in Dulles, Va. He can be reached at .