Montgomery school system to use more relocatable classrooms -- Gazette.Net


At Spark M. Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown, the largest elementary school in Montgomery County, 350 of 1,036 students learn in portables.

While the goal of Montgomery County Public Schools is to reduce the number of students learning in portables, Principal Judy Brubaker said she likes her “learning cottages.” The outdoor hallways are considered part of the school, she said.

With growing enrollment, the school system will see a continued increase in the use of portables over the next few years, according to James Song, the school system’s director of facilities management.

On April 10, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved $4 million for the school system for relocatable classrooms in the 2012-2013 school year. This will pay to move about 55 portables on and off school campuses, for the annual lease of new portables, and for rehabilitation, Song said.

The school system will have a net increase of about 40 to 50 portables next year, to about 550 total, Song said. There are about 496 portables in use; about 8,000 students attend class in 350 portables, and the rest are used for other programs or work space.

The increase next school year comes with another increase in student enrollment — the school system projects 3,280 more students, and in the next six years, enrollment is expected to grow by about 10,000 students.

“It is always our goal to reduce the number of relocatable classrooms, however, the last three years or so, there has been a record amount of growth — we have been averaging about 2,000 to 2,500 student enrollment increases,” Song said.

Jerry D. Weast, past superintendent of schools, set a goal in 2006 to reduce the number of portable classrooms used by 68 percent by the 2012-2013 school year. In the 2005-2006 school year, the school system had reached a record high number of 719 portables.

Song said the school system considers portables temporary solutions, considering the impact they have on the ability for teachers to work in pod-like settings and the fact that they are disconnected from other classrooms and the school.

The school system was making progress until 2008, when enrollment, which had plateaued, began to shoot up again, according to the school system’s Capital Improvement Program document.

With current capacity just above current enrollment this year, with about 146,456 students and room for 147,148 students, but with 51.5 percent of schools at overcapacity, 100 of 194, parents with Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations say that portables are a necessary evil.

“Permanent classroom space is a better quality space,” said Steve Augustino, capital improvements program chairman for the association. “It is more conducive of the educational objectives of the school system than temporary spaces.”

But Augustino said the situation within portables is better than it has been in the past — there is better maintenance and the portables that the school system buys are better and less susceptible to problems.

Laurie Halverson of Potomac, vice president of educational issues for the assocation, agrees. Halverson still remembers the state of the portables at Bells Mill Elementary School in 2006, when mold was found in two of the school’s portables.

“The chairs of the kids were falling through the floor it was so moist under the floor,” she said. “I haven’t heard of any of that lately.”

While many of the school system’s portables are old, the school system is doing a better job of doing maintenance and repairs, Halverson said. But portables are expensive, she said, and health and safety issues are still a concern.

Each portable costs about $6,000 to lease annually, so leases on the 500 portables the school system already has will cost the school system somewhere around $3 million, Song said.

Susan Burkinshaw, health and safety co-chair of the assocation, said portables should not be a permanent solution.

In weather emergencies and safety situations, students in relocatable classrooms must be brought into the school for several hours and even days, Burkinshaw said.

“This can be a severe hardship on an overcrowded school with an inordinate percentage of their students in relocatables,” she said. “This can severely impact classroom time.”

Spark Matsunaga Elementary received its first portables one year after its opening in 2001. Now, the school has most portables of all schools; 15 of the school’s 43 classrooms are relocatable.

But Brubaker said the school has never had safety issues in the learning cottages, where all fourth- and fifth-graders attend class.

The school's best technology is in her portables, and teachers know they are getting a deal when they move out there, she said.

“If you are switching classes, it is wonderful to be out and get fresh air,” she said, “[There are] birds flying into the rafters, and nesting we can watch.”