Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Record Spending on School Construction To Be Wasted

Yesterday, Maryland Governor Elect Martin O'Malley announced he planned to include a record $400 million for school construction in his budget proposal to the General Assembly,
making good on a costly campaign promise aimed at reducing the number of "temporary learning shacks" that have sprung up on schoolyards in the Washington suburbs and elsewhere in the state.
A "temporary learning shack" should be read as a portable classroom, a common feature at many schools.

From a political perspective, this is a good move for O'Malley as many people in Maryland decry the use of portables for the teaching of their kids. The only reason I can think of is psychological, the portables bring to mind trailer parks and God forbid that image for our kids. I know my own wife finds them ugly and somehow improper, but she grew up in this atmosphere that portables are bad.

I, on the other hand, grew up in Florida, where portables were not only common, they were the product of the high shop classes in most cases, built for students, by students under the watchful eyes of teachers and building inspectors. My middle school was a collection of four permanent buildings with about a dozen classrooms in three buildings, and the cafeteria, library and administrative offices in the other building. The remainder of classrooms were in portables, including gym class when it was raining. This was the norm for us and it made sense.

While the anti-portable crusade makes for good political hay, it is very bad financially. Maryland is home to a number of counties that are not just growing, they are exploding. Schools that would be built with the funds O'Malley promises won't be built for two years at best, in teh meantime, such schools will be obsolete or undersized before the ink is dry on the blueprints.

Portable buildings provide both a cost-effective solution to the ebb and flow of student populations and the flexibility to move as needs dictate. A protable classroom can be built, equipped, and positioned for perhaps five or six thousand dollars each and be constructed in a matter of weeks. A new school building will cost tens of millions of dollars and take the better part of two years to build. This is not to say the schools should not consist of primarily fixed buildings, but there should be room for the addition of portable classrooms as necessary. When the enrollment in a given school swells with the addition of new families to an area, throw a few portables in the school yard and when those students move on, move the portables to a new school.

With a fixed building, the community is left funding a building that is obsolete when finished and then lays largely dormant as the neighborhood ages. The nature of building planning means you are making a guess as to the useful size and life of a building. Maryland is growing (although my guess is that with the spendthrift O'malley and a free spending Nanny-State General Assembly, that could change). The growth demands the construction of new schools, but instead of spending poorly, why not explain the value of a few portables at the schools in the short term saves money in the long.

Of course that would require foresight, for which many people are famously starving for.

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