It's not an uncommon sight at the start of a new school year – portable classrooms scattered around the campuses of nearly half of Harford County's public schools. Just because they're there, though, doesn't mean they're being used as classroom space.
On the contrary, the 73 portable classrooms in use at 20 of the county's 54 schools are only being used for student capacity issues at three of them, all elementary schools, officials said.
The portables at other schools are used for a variety of reasons – storage, interventions, special programs or other non-classroom based activities.
When he first became county executive, David Craig, a longtime teacher and assistant principal with the county's public school system, said he wanted to eliminate portable classrooms.
When Craig took office in 2005, Harford was using 94 portable classrooms at a time when total enrollment was at its peak. Since then, enrollment has declined, by nearly 3,000 students as of last fall, and new schools have been built, reducing the need for the portables. School officials say, however, that there will always be a need to have some trailers, though not necessarily as many.
One example they cite is for construction projects at schools, including a new HVAC system at Magnolia Middle School where, during the new school year students, and staff, including the administration, will be shuffled around various part of the building and eight portables depending where the work is being done. On a recent summer week, the school's office staff was working in the portables, as renovation work was being done in their usual space.
In a recent e-mail, Craig said he has asked the school system for a plan on how it intends to eliminate the use of portable classrooms, but as of Monday he had not received one.
"As always, we are more than willing to assist the school system in any way that we can, as the elimination of relocatable classrooms remains a priority of the administration," Craig wrote, adding that enrollment is down significantly and many of the portable classrooms on school campuses are not used for capacity issues.
While the school system will never completely eliminate portable classroom use, it would like to see the number on hand significantly reduced – except it's having hard time making that reduction a reality.
"We've been trying to give them away," Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, said recently. "We're willing to almost give these things away if folks who want them would take on the cost of moving them. They're unwilling to do that for a [small building]," he said.
So, the school system is developing a plan to "systematically reduce the number of relocatables we don't use anymore," Licata said.
The need for portables
In the middle part of the 2000s – 2004, 2005, 2006 – overall enrollment at the county's elementary and middle schools exceeded their state rated capacities.
While some schools didn't reach their capacity levels, particularly in the Route 40 area south of I-95 and into the northern end – some were significantly over. As a means to address overcrowding, portable classrooms were brought in to add capacity. Overall high school enrollment was lower than the schools' capacities, but individually five schools had more students than they had room for.
Nearly a decade later, none of the nine middle schools is over capacity, while six of the county's 33 elementary schools are, down from two middle and 18 elementary schools over their rated capacity limits in 2005.
Among 10 high schools, Patterson Mill High School was the only one over capacity based on September 2012 enrollment numbers, the last date for which the school system has exact figures. It was at 102 percent. Harford Tech was at 110 percent of capacity, but is a magnet school drawing students from around the county, so it is capacity is viewed differently by the school system.
"Relocatables provide additional program space to support teaching and instruction," Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, wrote in a recent e-mail.
"Relocatable classrooms serve as a resource for school districts and provide the flexibility required to accommodate the space requirements associated with the delivery of specialized resource and intervention programs and student support services," Kranefeld wrote.
Over time, she said, educational programs and service requirements have been modified, changed and/or have increased.
"As the result of these changes, some school facilities are lacking the space required to accommodate programmatic needs. As [a] result, relocatable classrooms serve as a resource for school districts and provide the flexibility required to accommodate the space requirements associated with the delivery of specialized resource and intervention programs, and student support services," Kranefeld wrote in the email.