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In the decade since last bond passed, school district turns to movable classrooms as inexpensive option | Portables, Part II
It’s been 10 years since voters in the Snoqualmie Valley School District approved a bond to build a school.
While various school levies for maintenance, technology or transportation have passed without a problem, voters have repeatedly withheld support of bonds for new schools since 2003, when they approved construction of Twin Falls Middle School with a $53 million bond.
In the past decade, the school district and its surrounding cities have all grown. Enrollment has increased by about 1,000 students.
The district has been expanding by about 2 percent annually. In the general population, Fall City added roughly 300 people, North Bend added about 1,000, and Snoqualmie added a zero, jumping from about 1,600 people in to 10,600 as of the 2010 census.
Property values increased, too, and the district’s tax base peaked in 2009, at an assessed total property value of more than $7 billion, according to a report from the King County Assessor. While most taxing districts in King County increased their levy rates to address declining property values that year, the Snoqualmie Valley School District actually reduced taxes. The only other school district to decrease taxes was the Tukwila School District.
Also in 2009, Snoqualmie Valley voters approved a $27 million capital facilities bond to buy portable classrooms. These modular structures are not considered part of the school district’s permanent student capacity, but they are an essential component of the program capacity.
“Most of our schools have about 20 or 25 percent of their capacity sitting in portables,” said district director of business services Ryan Stokes.
In terms of structures, that’s 59, and since some of them are two-classroom units, that’s also roughly two school buildings’ worth of students. Most of the district’s portables, 31, are located at its five elementary schools. Only Chief Kanim and Twin Falls Middle Schools have no portable classrooms this year, and that will change soon, with the arrival of three double-wide structures at both schools this spring, plus another one for Cascade View Elementary. Next school year will find 22 portables at Mount Si (including three at the future freshman campus, now SMS), 34 at the five elementary schools, 8 at Two Rivers and six at the middle schools.
The new portables will be the first at Twin Falls, which opened in 2008, but not for Chief Kanim, which saw enrollment between 750 and 800 students (the same numbers estimated for next year’s enrollment at both schools next fall) in the years before Twin Falls opened.
Chief Kanim Principal Kirk Dunckel recalled that, with the portables, the school had barely enough room for all the students, but not enough for all the teachers. Some teachers had to work from carts, which they rolled into classrooms as they became available, which sometimes meant bumping out the “resident” teacher, too.
“You had to tell your teachers ‘look, we have to use your classroom,’” Dunckel said. “So what happened was that each teacher had to give up their prep.”
Luckily, he adds, “I think my staff has been one that kind of rolls with it.” Also, he’s not expecting anyone to work from a cart next year.
As a way to bridge the gap between increased enrollment and fixed building capacity, portables can also be relatively inexpensive. Snoqualmie Valley typically uses the one-time revenue of impact fees to buy portables, said Stokes, with the exception of the 2009 purchase of portables for the high school. Costs for portables, though, increase significantly with the upgrades to roofing, siding, and access that the district requires for each structure.
“Yes, they’re moveable, says Stokes, “but our intent is to serve the kids with them for a long time.”
Portables also come with their own set of challenges, including space limitations — no room for activities like gym class — and a lack of utilities that keep things like science labs out of the portables. Stokes is well aware of the challenges, and communicates them to the school board.
“What we try to talk about with the board is that these portables are a good alternative when we can’t get a bond passed for a permanent structure, but you’ve got to remember that while this houses students for the class period, you also have demands on your commons-area space,” Stokes said, such as the school gym, cafeteria, bathrooms and counseling center. “So as you add more portables, your commons-area space isn’t designed to serve that many kids.”
As an example, he points to Snoqualmie Elementary, which has the most portables at the grade-school level, and no multi-purpose room. “So they’ve got to get all these kids through lunch, and through gym,” he said, with only one large space to use for both. “It’s not very convenient…and it’s a good example of how portables can stress the permanent structure, in the common areas.”
The additional capacity of portables can also stress the building’s staff. Chief Kanim had to add staff members to supervise lunches and the free periods before and after the bells, because more students meant more opportunities for discipline problems.
“I remember in those years when we were big, it was a management nightmare,” said Dunckel.
But, at the same time, Dunckel says, “We had good test scores when we had 714 kids.”
That observation confirms Stokes’ comment, “We don’t believe that it impacts the learning, and the research seems to show … it doesn’t impact learning whether you’re in a portable or in a permanent.”
So, do the students in those portables even notice the difference?
Well, they still stash their coats and bags in cubbies, or, if they’re in Amy Jones’ Fall City classroom, in a converted storage area off the classroom, and they still need permission to leave the room. Some of them think it’s fun that they don’t have to go into the school building when they get off the bus, and some like to help by holding the door when the water delivery man arrives on Fridays.
Other than that, the answer varies.
“It’s kind of smaller,” says one girl in Betsy Sorenson’s classroom at Fall City Elementary.
“I like it better because it’s quieter,” says Jack Mardon, another student.
“Each classroom is entirely separate, so you don’t get the noise in the halls,” explains parent volunteer Mike Hedrick. Add the extra fresh air from going outside to change classrooms, or go to lunch, the gym, or the restroom, and “The kids seem to focus a little more.”
“The only difference is there’s one door, instead of two doors,” to get to class is how Mackenzie Smith sums it up.
There’s one other difference, but it’s small. In 2003, the district still owned portables, but only 34. It was, however, already planning to buy four more.