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School Board to weigh pros and cons of portable classrooms

Several old portable classrooms sit in the parking lot of the Bemidji School District bus garage located on 15th Street Northwest. Some have been turned into garages and storage units. Others remain vacant. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Decisions on school construction projects are not only a local school district matter. They are also a state and sometimes city matter, too. There are laws, rules, codes, standards and guidelines that dictate the construction process.

This is why the Bemidji School District's Board of Education chose to wait one week before making a final decision on a short term solution to finding more classroom space for elementary students.

After a 5-1 vote Monday, the school board directed Superintendent James Hess and his cabinet of administrators to research more information on the purchasing or leasing of portable/modular classrooms before it makes a final decision at a special meeting 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, in the district office conference room.

At a school board meeting Monday the school board unanimously voted to seek public approval for construction bonds to erect a new four-section elementary school at a location to be determined at a later day.

As a short-term solution, the school board proposed purchasing or leasing portable classrooms at Northern and Solway schools. In an earlier work session Hess suggested it could cost roughly $161,820 per classroom unit. Each portable unit could house two classes, or up to 50 students.

Using portable or modular classrooms is not a new concept for the Bemidji School District. They were once used at the old Bemidji High School and at several elementary schools. They provide schools with additional classroom space at a lower cost than permanent construction.

Over the years, the rules have changed on what portable classrooms are constructed out of, the foundations they sit on and some of the health and safety requirements. State regulations now require portables to have sound foundations and hookups for electricity and water.

At the last school board meeting Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, voiced his concerns over bringing in portable classroom manufacturer representatives within a timeline of one week.

"If you're looking at needing to know if it can be done, I don't have answers to all the questions," Leinen said. "I want to bring an expert out who can say 'Yes, I can put portable classroom and meet all code requirements imposed by the county or township.' But I don't believe it could be done by next Monday."

But the board was insistent on making a decision by this Monday.

Bruce Anderson, principal at Northern Elementary School, started teaching in the school district in 1974. He remembers teaching in a portable classroom located behind Building B on the old high school lot.

"In the old days, you could literally put down garages, which is what the old portables were sort of like," Anderson said. "In those days there were not a lot of codes to meet as far as the building having to have plumbing or placed on a foundation. There's a different set of standards now."

Anderson recalled that the old portable classrooms were similar in size to a large double-car garage, with paneled walls in the inside. In the portable classroom where he taught, there was a divider in the middle that split two classrooms.

"I always thought when (the school district) was done using them they could move them and make cabins out of them," Anderson said. "They would be great for that."

Anderson said he is more concerned about where portable classrooms would be placed and how they would be used rather than if they should be used at all. Northern Elementary, which has more than 600 students, has no more classroom space. Its cafeteria and hallways are also at capacity.

Portable classrooms used for a computer lab or music/art room would help free up common area space as long as more students are not added to the elementary school, Anderson said.

In addition, portables added to Northern would have to be located in the parking lot, potentially becoming an eyesore as the classroom buildings age.

"They serve their purpose, but can also become a long term fix," Anderson said, referring to when the district needed to use portable classrooms at the Paul Bunyan Center for 15 or so years.

School board members appeared unified in their vote Monday to build a new elementary school, but seemed to struggle deciding on voting for a short-term solution.

School board member Ann Long Voelkner said she personally wrestled to find a solution that would minimize disruption to children and families.

"In talking through the options I came to the conclusion that proposing portables would in fact be the less disruptive to kids and families," Long Voelkner said. "We did have a lot of questions and concerns. It is important as board to have those conversations."

For school board member John Pugleasa, making a short-term decision is difficult.

"It's hard to come up with something where there is not any good short-term solution," Pugleasa said. "It's hard to approve temporary buildings because you look at that as good money. It's like putting a cork in hole you are leaking out of, making it harder to pass a bond because now there isn't same immediate need."

Pugleasa said he has leaned towards the decision because he feels it would be the least disruptive short-term solution.

"No matter what we do, it will cost money. There isn't a free way to hold things together," he added. "We all know what portable classrooms are and what they are not."

Reconfiguring grade levels, Pugleasa said, would be more disruptive to families and harder for the school board to achieve the long-term goal of building a new school.

At the Monday meeting school board member Gene Dillon said he is afraid once the school district starts using the portable classrooms they will become permanent.

"I just don't like modulars," Dillon said. "I think putting one out at Northern, to me that is just asking for trouble."

School board Chairman Bill Faver said adding portable classrooms to schools was his least favorite option, but said he would vote for it if "was the will of the board." He added he would rather reconfigure grade levels or convert the Paul Bunyan Center back into an early learning center as short-term decisions.