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.
Classes at three schools
Even though the school system has 73 portable buildings, at about 850 square feet each, they're only being used as classroom space at three schools: Hickory Elementary, Bel Air Elementary and Youth's Benefit Elementary, Licata said.
At other schools, they're used for storage, intervention programs, even staff offices for itinerant employees, such as at John Archer School, which serves special needs students.
Among the elementary schools, Bel Air and North Harford have two; Hickory and Homestead/Wakefield have three; Forest Lakes, Prospect Mill, William Paca/Old Post Road and Jarrettsville have four; Fountain Green and Magnolia have five; Emmorton has six; and Youth's Benefit has seven.
Only two Harford County high schools have portable classrooms – C. Milton Wright, which has four, and Joppatowne, which has three. John Archer School has four portables.
At the middle school level in the most recent check, Bel Air has two portables, Edgewood has four, Fallston has one and North Harford, six. Magnolia Middle has eight, to facilitate the nearly $8 million heating and air conditioning project to replace the handlers, chillers and cooling towers. The work is being done by Phillips Way of Finksburg, according to Kranefeld.
The nearly 800 Magnolia Middle students who don't have a class in one of the eight portable classrooms will be shifted around in different parts of the building during the project.
"Approximately eight eighth-grade classrooms will be moved to the relocatables during the Magnolia [Middle] HVAC project. The remaining students and teachers, in the building, will be rotated to other areas based on the location of the construction at that time," Kranefeld wrote in an e-mail.
A similar process was followed at Jarrettsville Elementary when a new HVAC system was installed there, she said.
The last time a new portable was purchased was in 2006, when the cost to purchase and set 16 units was $1,306,378.88, or $81,648.68 per unit, Kranefeld wrote.
"That doesn't include the design fees, paving costs, electrical costs and other [miscellaneous] fees that HCPS would incur. Many of the portables purchased in 2006 were to allow for the implementation of the full-day kindergarten program that became a requirement by the state at that time," she wrote.
While enrollment is down, the number of schools and seats in them has increased since 2005. In the 2004-2005 school year, overall enrollment was 40,313 students in a system with an overall capacity of 39,197 seats, a difference of 1,116 more students than seats.
In the 2012-2013 school year, the last for which figures were available, 37,868 students were enrolled in schools with 44,166 seats. The increased capacity comes from the addition of three new schools – Patterson Mill Middle and High and Red Pump Elementary – among other efforts by the school system.
"We are pleased that, according to the school system's most recent enrollment figures published in December, all of Harford's schools are reported as under 105 percent capacity, with the exception of Harford Tech," Craig wrote in his e-mail. "This is thanks to three factors – declining enrollment, comprehensive redistricting undertaken by the Board of Ed and the approximately $300 million in forward funding of school construction undertaken in recent years by county government."
Reducing portable use
Because they're not all being used, and the costs involved with maintaining them, the school system is developing plans to reduce the number of portables it owns, Kranefeld said. The reduction is scheduled for implementation during the summer of 2014.
"This plan does not eliminate all relocatables that are owned by HCPS. Given that relocatables are used to support the needs associated with specialized programs as well as the needs of HCPS' school construction program, HCPS will always have a need/use for relocatable units," she said.
Two years ago, Craig allocated money in the budget for the school system to dispose of portable classrooms, but it hasn't been used yet, Licata said.
The question, he said, is does the school system spend the money to demolish a portable or use it for storage or something else and use that money for something else?
It costs about $10,000 to demolish a portable, about $65,000 to relocate one.
So why not just keep them to see if they're needed?
"They're sitting on a property, they're a liability, off the beaten path. They need electricity, maintenance, costs that add up just to have them that we could eliminate," Licata explained. "We have to weigh the cost of demolishing one of them versus the other things we need to do. Is it money better spent on other things? With all the other priorities, it's not at the top of our list."
So far, the school system hasn't found any takers for the portables it doesn't need. The school system has gone as far as trying to sell them at public auction, with no success,
For now, the school system will do its best to get rid of them a few at a time, Licata said.
Craig said how the school system spends its money is its prerogative.
"County government has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the board for the removal and relocation of these classrooms. However, the decisions related to how the relocatable classrooms are utilized and how they are disposed of are ultimately made by the Board of Ed and the school system, as they should be," the county executive said.