Portables aren’t the best choice for our kids or our wallets

After the Everett school bond “failed” with 58 percent of citizens voting yes, a Herald editorial suggested that the district consider using more temporary classrooms.

That would take us in the wrong direction.

Here’s the problem, why it matters for you and what we can do about it.

Kids need real classrooms. So do teachers and taxpayers.

A well-built, long-lasting school is better for a kid’s education, the people working in the building and the taxpayers footing the bill.

Now, there’s a difference between modern, modular buildings and common portables. The Snoqualmie Valley School district is using modern modular buildings instead of trailer-style portables, and this is a huge step up from the cardboard boxes that pass for classrooms at many schools.

But even the best modular buildings have some drawbacks compared to regular classrooms in permanent buildings built to today’s standards. There are still issues with movement between classes, security, heating, cooling and lighting.

The real problem with the cheapest kind of portables is they actually can cost more in the long run when you figure in the higher price of electricity, maintenance, health concerns and the cost of dismantling and disposing of these temporary buildings.

Over the life of a building only 30 percent of the cost is in the construction or purchase. The majority of costs to taxpayers — 70 percent — is in operating costs. So portables seem cheap, but they aren’t.

There are 3,983 portable classrooms in Washington state today. If you do the math, with 25 students per classroom, that’s about 100,000 students, a staggering number of students in portables. And for all the effort of good teachers, those kids carry a little more burden because of the portable. Teachers and parents know portables aren’t the best place to learn. It hurts these kids in the competition with other students for grades, jobs and getting into good universities.

This means one in 10 kids needs a real classroom, and that’s without doing anything about overcrowding. Overcrowding and old portables also lead to trouble with learning and health problems. You’ve probably heard stories of kids and teachers getting sick from mold, or having to wear coats because their portable was so cold.

To learn more about portables and this issue, read the great series Inside the Box, http://earthfix.info/portables, by reporters from InvestigateWest who interviewed local students, teachers and experts in our state.

So how can we tackle this problem?

Simple: build real schools.

To do that, lawmakers need to know this is a priority to you.

When 58 percent of the voters in the Everett School District say yes, that needs to translate into action in Olympia.

When the state Supreme Court orders lawmakers to reduce overcrowding in our schools, it should mean action. Not just funding more teachers, but paying for the classrooms to put those new teachers in. The court called for $700 million in classroom construction to make this happen.

But some lawmakers are trying to pick a fight with the court about separation of powers. Please. Let’s get the job done for our kids. We don’t need a Supreme Court order to know that overcrowded classrooms and an over-reliance on “temporary” portables hurts students.

Republicans and Democrats in the House worked together on a solution.

We passed a $700 million plan on a 90-7 vote, using lottery money — as voters intended when they passed Initiative 728 — to build new classrooms.

This plan would also create 7,000 construction jobs in every corner of the state.

The idea was opposed by the leadership of the Senate. It never was allowed to come up for a vote.

The Senate did propose, but never voted on, cutting other vital needs by taking the money from other construction projects. That means taking money to build schools, housing for homeless kids, flood prevention, universities and parks. A bad idea that would hurt us all.

A whole community includes many things that relate to schools. The number of homeless kids going to our schools in this state rose by 12 percent last school year to a total of 30,000 students. It’s no shock that a kid who slept in a car, or homeless shelter, won’t perform as well in the morning. They’re more worried about other things, so cutting those funds only hurts kids. Parks get children out of doors, and away from the TV, where they exercise and learn.

Cutting communities just to say you did something about schools isn’t a real solution.

This is also about jobs. The communities and states that build top-quality schools will attract the best teachers, produce the best students and the best local economies.

If you’ve got kids or grandkids in local schools, or if you support our schools and want to make a difference, please think about this issue.

Take a look around your local school. Call or email your local lawmakers, because this problem won’t go away until we solve it. “No” or “later” or “nothing” is not acceptable.

Stand up and speak out, because you can make a difference for our kids.

Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish) has been a volunteer firefighter and small business owner. He now chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, and negotiates the state’s construction budget.

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