Portable classrooms present quagmire for Carson school officials

Headache might be the best term to describe the 70,000 square feet of portable space in use in the Carson City School District. A look at the structures at Carson Middle School gives an idea why.

It's not just that the weathered exteriors of the buildings need to be repainted annually. Nor that the decks of Carson Middle School's portables are restained every summer at a cost between $5,000-$6,000.

It's not solely that when the weather gets cold, space heaters are put in the portable bathrooms, students come in to class wet or cold, and that the wind blows in after them.

"Teachers try to start their lessons and the student is sopping wet," said Sam Santillo, principal of Carson Middle School. "It's already a distraction and it's not the kid's fault."

Nails stick up from the decks in some places, some of the boards those nails are in are rotting, and some of those rotting slabs are connected to other slabs through weakened connections.

Winter offers no reprieve. When the snow collects on the decks, blowers are useless. The district has its employees come in and shovel by hand. Because there is no place to pile the snow, it builds in heaps on the deck.

"There's a snow berm right down the middle of the deck," said Mike Mitchell, director of operations for the Carson City School District, to a group of community members on a tour Wednesday through the school's portables.

Some 200-300 students use Carson Middle School's portables daily and for them there's the problem of isolation.

"Portables tend to segregate people," Mitchell said. "And portables don't have the same amenities (as for those inside)."

There is no shelf space for books in classrooms. Classroom space is usually tight. Pat Carpenter, principal of Empire Elementary School, with 15,000 square feet of portables, said it doesn't help decrease the stigma when the students using their portables are not just the fourth and fifth-graders, but also special-education students.

Carpenter, who was on the tour as part of the master plan committee, said the largest environmental threat is ice.

To top it all off, portable space costs three times as much to maintain as brick-and-mortar, but provides less classroom space because of required distances between structures.

The district is seeking guidance from its master plan committee about whether to keep the portables or seek a bond to convert to brick-and-mortar space.

The concern is that with decreasing student enrollment, brick-and-mortar space may not be justified. Enrollment peaked at 8,672 in the Carson City School District in the 2001-02 school year, but dropped to 8,518 students this year. Bob Anderson, finance director for the district, estimates that by 2007-08, enrollment will have dropped to just under 8,000 students.

Portables in the district date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when enrollment began increasing. In 1992, Carson Middle School received its first portable, but the reason brick-and-mortar structures weren't added from the beginning was part finance, part a wait-and-see attitude.

"We wanted to wait and make sure there was enrollment to justify the permanency of the construction," Mitchell said. "Ten, 12, 15 years have gone by and we've elected to leave the portable space rather than convert."

The master-plan committee will meet again Nov. 30. Following that, there will be one more meeting to formulate a slew of recommendations that will be presented to the school board of trustees.

"You always have the portables as a way of testing the water," Mitchell said. "How long are we going to test the waters?"

-- Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at moneill@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.


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