Sunday, September 14, 1997

Schools use fewer trailers: The district is experiencing temporary relief from the overcrowding problem

Published in the Columbia Missourian

Columbia public schools are using fewer mobile classrooms this year than in the past, in an attempt to bring students into permanent school buildings. School officials are optimistic about eventually moving away from trailer use, but say that the district's bonding capacity limit prevents them from moving forward more quickly.

This year, there are 121 mobile classrooms around the Columbia Public School District, down 15 from last year. Ten of those are at Lange Middle School, which opened with them this year because of an inability to finance a larger permanent facility.

Many students and teachers like the trailer-classrooms, for their space, atmosphere and climate control.

"It was a lot smaller, and I liked it because it had air conditioning," said Andrea Smith, a fourth-grader at Fairview Elementary, whose class was held in a trailer last year.

"I enjoyed my trailer because they're large," said Joan Rawson, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Oakland Junior High.

"You're out here by yourself," said Justin Towe, a sixth-grade math teacher at Lange. "We have the same facilities other people in the school have except that we're outside."

However, Two Mile Prairie Elementary's art teacher, Kathy Dwyer, is happy she's back inside. Dwyer was in a trailer last year with no running water, which made cleanup more difficult.

Harris Cooper, president of the school board, calls mobile classrooms a temporary solution to an overcrowding problem.

"Mobile classrooms ought to be used in a very limited fashion," Cooper said. He wants them replaced in time with permanent structures. Trailers can only increase classroom space and not infrastructure; bathrooms, lunchrooms, auditoriums, and gymnasiums become inadequate for the student population size, he said.

Financing problems
Major renovations are needed at some schools; most schools need more classroom space than they have. School officials say there is not enough money for everything.

By law, Missouri school districts can only issue bonds worth 10 percent of the district's assessed property value. In 1996, voters defeated a statewide constitutional amendment that would have permitted an increase of bonding capacity to 15 percent.

The Columbia district is already bonded to its maximum capacity. An expansion of that capacity would have permitted over $40 million of additional bonds to be proposed by the board, still subject to public approval.

Renting vs. buying
Deputy Superintendent Marjorie Spaedy said no records are kept for annual mobile classroom maintenance. The district leases 87 trailers with an option to buy and rents 28, according to Greg Cooper, district purchasing agent.

The trailers each cost between $6,500 and $7,000 annually to rent, Spaedy said. The district has moved from leases with buy options to rentals, Spaedy said. "Recently, we've been hoping we would be able to return some as we built new buildings," she said.

Replacing all of the existing trailers with permanent classroom space would cost nearly $11.5 million.

The main company renting trailers to the school district is Missouri Equipment Leasing, of Springfield. Purchasing a trailer there would cost between $35,000 and $45,000, including transportation and installation. With a toilet included, it would cost at least $40,000 delivered and installed.

Tony Andrews, of Modular Technologies Inc., of Kinston, North Carolina, said the district is "coming out a lot better" by renting trailers from his company than by purchasing them. He said purchasing a trailer from Modular costs around $25,000 , not including transportation or installation. In their leases, Modular Technologies includes transportation, installation, and removal as well as structural maintenance.

Planning for the future
Cooper noted that while enrollment stabilization is difficult to predict, some catching up has been possible with the opening of Lange Middle School. Also helping this year is the fact that enrollment increased by only 23 students, far lower than projected. He hopes that new bond issues will be able to continue to relieve overcrowding.

Lange Principal Carole Kennedy said the use of trailers "really isn't poor planning." Lange opened with 10 trailers because there was no money to build a larger facility, she said.

Spaedy reported that the planning process for each of the three middle schools includes plans to double their capacities, though that construction would require further district bond issues. Kennedy said school facilities plans also include trailers.

The district maintains all the trailers it uses.

"Their life span depends on how long you make them last," Spaedy said. A typical lifetime is between 10 and 30 years, she said, noting that she is not aware of any trailers discarded by the district.

More pressing concerns?
"It's clear that they don't plan to move these trailers," said Helen Burnham, a parent of four students in the district.

Burnham doesn't consider mobile classrooms a major problem.

"They're not that big a deal," she said. "My children tend to want to have classes in trailers."

Burnham would rather the district focused on reducing class size rather than reducing trailer numbers. Most of the district's educational goals could be met, she said, by lowering class numbers and giving teachers more time with each student. "A nice group of 15 or 20 of them in a trailer is fine."