The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: The Saga of Relocatable Classrooms

by James A. Fleming

When I'm asked how our school district is keeping up with the tremendous population growth in our area, I'm reminded of the children's tale about the "old woman who lived in a shoe who had so many children she didn't know what to do."

Capistrano Unified School District is composed of nine high-profile planned communities in Southern California and a significant amount of unincorporated land in the Orange County. Our annual student enrollment growth for the past decade has ranged from 4 to 7.5 percent, and in one of our communities, Aliso Viejo, growth is exceeding 23 percent each year. Our enrollment districtwide doubled during the 10-year period.

This escalation in student population is exacerbated by the fact that some of our communities, which were built 25 to 30 years ago, also are experiencing an increase in their child population as "empty nesters" retire and sell their homes to young families with children.

If those two factors aren't enough to burst our seams, add to the mix California Governor Pete Wilson's primary class size reduction initiative, now in its first year of implementation. This program allowed us to reduce class sizes at all of our first and second grades to a maximum of 20 students per class, lowering class size at those grades by 33 percent.

We obviously welcomed and applauded the governor's move to reduce class size at those important early years. However, with school districts having less than six weeks notice to implement his program for the start of the current school year, many hurried and short-term solutions were implemented to create the additional classrooms needed.

We simply would not be able to provide classrooms for all incoming students without the ability to use relocatable classrooms. We use 524 relocatable classrooms at the moment, dispersed among our 41 school campuses to serve our student population of 37,600 students.

Interestingly, California several years ago passed a law requiring school districts to design and build all new schools with 30 percent modular classrooms. The rationale is that while a community might be burgeoning with students today and desperately in need of a school, that same community, within 10 or 20 years, easily could face a decline in enrollment and not need as many classrooms. By having one-third of the campus relocatable, those excess modular classrooms theoretically could be moved to another community where classrooms are needed and still allow the remaining two-thirds of the school to stay open.

Flexibility Desired

This proactive approach by the state is to be commended because it provides flexibility and helps to prevent school boards from facing the unpleasant task of having to close schools in communities with declining enrollment.

Relocatable classrooms have been a saving grace in our school district. The state simply has not had sufficient funds for permanent school construction, thus requiring school districts such as ours to find creative ways to house additional students. While we have built 12 new schools in the past five years, it's just not enough.

In one instance, we were in such dire need of an elementary school in one rapidly growing community that we graded a small six-acre site we owned and in 53 days constructed a 22-classroom elementary school solely with relocatable buildings. We accomplished this and still met all stringent state building requirements. Compare this with the usual time frame to construct a school with 22 permanent classrooms—at least 10 to 12 months—and one can easily see the benefits of this approach.

When Governor Wilson heard about our "53-day wonder," he couldn't believe it and actually sent state officials to tour first-hand this new school. Foxborough Elementary School, as it's known, is thriving as an outstanding school. The children, parents and employees who are part of the Foxborough family love their school and have proven that a school is obviously so much more than the proverbial brick and mortar. To our knowledge, it’s the only one of its type.

Of course, relocatable classrooms long have faced an image problem. Some people quite frankly view them as inferior. We know from our long-standing experience using relocatables that they are far from inferior. They frequently are larger than a regular classroom, self-contained, and energy efficient. One negative aspect of using relocatable classrooms, however, is that in a high-growth area you eventually reach a saturation point where a particular campus simply cannot adequately handle any more.

Although relocatable classrooms in California were intended to be a temporary, short-term solution, on Capistrano Unified School District campuses they have provided a longer-term, even permanent, remedy to the school facilities crisis. Make no mistake about it, however, relocatable classrooms, while an enhancement to permanently constructed schools, should not be a substitute whenever possible.

Key Considerations

Many things must be considered when evaluating the potential use of relocatable classrooms. Four important factors are acquisition and use; identification of responsible vendors; planning; and costs.

* Acquisition and Use.

Probably the most critical element in acquiring relocatables is to be sure they will be delivered when you need them. If you don’t order relocatables by April, there’s simply not enough time to have them manufactured, to prepare your site, to seek state approval (where necessary), and to accept delivery and install them in time for the opening day of classes.

Back in mid-March, the chairman of a trade group representing manufacturers of portable classrooms said that even orders placed that day probably would not receive delivery by September. This may be more of an issue in our state. Since the inception of the incentive program to cut class sizes, the dozen portable manufacturers in California have gone from producing 3,500 classroom units a year to nearly 14,000.

In preparation for their use, school officials should be certain they adhere to all state and federal standards, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state regulations. In California, the Field Act provides for earthquake safety.

Other factors that are equally important for the overall use of relocatables include size, doors and windows, air conditioning, capacity, material used for structural frame, foundation, and aesthetics.

Aesthetics is generally a double-edged sword for most school systems. If the relocatables look too undesirable or out of place, the community is upset. Conversely, if the relocatables look too good, the state easily slips into a false sense of satisfaction that these classrooms are equal to permanently constructed ones.

* Vendors.

When looking for responsible vendors who can meet your relocatable needs, the reputation and previous track record of a particular vendor should not be underestimated. Obviously, one looks for a vendor that is available and will deliver when you need the classrooms. However, other factors are just as important.

Be sure your vendor has experience in constructing relocatable classrooms in your state and that they provide for in-plant inspection by the state architect's office. Also, make sure the vendor is bondable and approvable. Without these criteria, quality and price mean little.

Even in California, only a limited number of relocatable classroom firms meet the state’s compliance requirements.

* Planning.

The planning process for installing relocatable classrooms frequently is long and laborious, but also prudent and necessary. Our recommended 10-step planning process follows:

1. Study enrollment projections and couple those projections with identified needs and requests at each school site.

2. Prioritize all of your relocatable classroom needs and requests districtwide.

3. Match your identified priorities with any current or near-future school boundary decisions.

4. Using available financial resources, order the relocatable classrooms from a responsible vendor. This can be accomplished by either leasing the buildings or buying them outright.

5. Determine the capacity at a given school site for available property that won't interfere with the current instructional program, then make arrangements for all necessary utilities.

6. With the assistance of a school architect, create a site plan for where and how the relocatables will be installed.

7. Submit that site plan to city and county officials or other required governmental agencies in your area for review.

8. During that review period, which in California takes 45 days, examine issues such as environmental impact and parking.

9. Prepare the site for installation of the relocatables by installing drainage, asphalt, foundation, utility hookups, and raised ramp entrances.

10. Upon delivery and installation of the relocatables, begin occupancy by teachers and children.

* Costs.

Relocatable classrooms are built by different vendors in a variety of sizes. In our school district, we have found the most beneficial size is a 24-by-40-foot relocatable classroom totaling 960 square feet. The current price in California for a steel-frame classroom of that size is $32,000.

Add on to that price tag the costs for site work, utilities, installation, inspection fees, and furniture and equipment. Now that classroom costs close to $50,000—roughly half what a traditional classroom costs to build.

Our district recently embarked on a new venture involving relocatables. We combined two 24-by-40-foot relocatable classrooms to create three 640-square-foot classrooms instead. This enables us to reach a 20:1 student-teacher ratio without adding to our space needs. We will continue to pursue this space-neutral tradeoff in the future.

Are relocatable classrooms the answer to the school facilities crisis? Yes and no. They do not and never will replace permanent construction. But they have proven to be the only answer to Capistrano Unified School District's facilities needs in the absence of sufficient state and local funding for permanent schools.

James Fleming, superintendent, Capistrano Unified School District, San Juan Capistrano, Calif., served as chair of Californians for Schools, which promoted a $3 billion statewide bond campaign for school facilities.