For at least fifty years, the Austin Independent School District has used portable classrooms as a way to relieve overcrowding. Yesterday, KUT reported more than half of the nearly 650 portables are over 25 years old – some are more than 50 years old. Many teachers and parents say portables conditions are poor.
But what – if anything – can the school district can do about it?
The simple answer:
“Portables will continue to be with us in one shape or another," AISD Facilities Manager Paul Turner said.
Turner says overcrowding has been a recurring problem for decades – which is why the district has used portables in the past.
“They’ve been a fact of life in this district pretty much forever," Turner said. "The growth picked up substantially when baby boom came through, another huge growth in Austin in the 70's."
AISD says the only way to reduce the number of portables is to build classroom additions or new schools. But that requires voter-approved bond money. In May, voters rejected a proposition to build new schools and classroom additions.
“Over next few years, you’re going to see an increase in portables until we can figure out a way to deal with overcrowding across the district," Austin School Board President Vincent Torres said.
The Texas Comptroller’s Office says AISD has no solid strategy to manage its portables. It conducted a performance review more than a decade ago. That’s the last time AISD’s portables were reviewed by an outside group.
The report said, without specific policies surrounding portables, the district wasn’t using them as efficiently as it could. The report recommended the district create a portable use plan.
Thirteen years later, AISD does not have that.
“They may not think we have a formal strategy, but the reality is, the strategy is going to be driven at some extent by the speed with which the place is growing and the amount of approval we can get for permanent capacity," Turner said.
According to the Comptroller’s report, AISD spends more than $1 million on new portable buildings and more than $600,000 to move them around from campus to campus. AISD was not able to provide updated numbers in time for this story.
Larry Speck with the Texas Society of Architects says a portable is always going to be more expensive to manage than a brick and motor structure.
“A portable classroom inherently has six exposed sides. So, that means it’s very hard to heat and cool something you got to insulate and have extra materials on each side," Speck said. "Whereas a traditional classroom, because it has parting walls, is just inherently more economical to build and long-term energy performance."
Speck says the Society of Architects is putting together a task force to study portable classrooms in Texas.
Portable maintenance is not just a financial burden on school districts, it’s also a security concern for many teachers and administrators.
“You’re vulnerable," Murchison Middle School Principal Sammi Harrison said. "The AISD person who helped us develop our emergency plan said the most vulnerable areas are breezeways connecting two buildings and portables. You can put a fence around it but someone with ill intention wants in, they just have to climb it or go around.”
Other teachers say portables make it difficult to keep track of students. One middle school teacher who did not want to be identified for fear of losing his job, says some students kick out the metal panels at the bottom of portables and hide things underneath.
Once or twice a year, he says, teachers find drugs under there.
Another teacher said, at one point, they discovered people living underneath portables.
It’s those types of concerns that public education advocates say could have an effect on enrollment.
“Parents are going to send their children to where they can get the best education; facilities make a difference. Teachers deserve adequate facilities. Many parents will choose other options that will hurt Austin. We have a window here to fix this – 18 months – but I think there will be an exodus from public education," John Blazier said. Blazier is one of the Citizen Bond Advisory Committee members who supported the most recent bond propositions.
Even if the district doesn’t develop a portable strategy in its Facility Master Plan, it expects overcrowding to continue. By the 2017-2018 school year, AISD estimates enrollment will increase at 94 percent of elementary schools. Forty percent of elementary schools will add more than 50 students – some more than 100.