Lake Oswego School Board members voted unanimously Monday to buy a 10-classroom modular building that district staff plan to use to address rising enrollment and to house students displaced by proposed bond maintenance projects.
Community members criticized the $625,000 purchase during testimony at the meeting, saying the district should instead look at reopening an elementary school or redrawing district boundary lines. But the board and district staff defended the decision, pointing to construction projects on the horizon that would displace entire schools if voters approve a $187 million maintenance bond on the May 16 ballot.
And student enrollment is growing, they said.
"We have capacity issues," School Board member Bob Barman said. "I don't see how we can't support this."
Parent Sara Lewis, who has three children attending Lake Grove Elementary and one at Lake Oswego Junior High, agreed that the district is "busting at the seams." But she stated that redrawing school district boundaries might be "a better option" than adding more temporary structures.
Ariel Smits, who has a second-grader at Westridge and a child who will attend kindergarten there next year, said she didn't understand why the purchase had come to the School Board so quickly without the public's knowledge. The cost of reopening an elementary school appeared to her to be similar to the purchase and installation costs of the modular building, Smits noted.
"Why are we using these portables?" she asked.
Portables vs. reopening a school
Superintendent Heather Beck, her staff and the School Board told parents that more room is needed for kids as district enrollment grows, and that reopening a school would be more expensive and less convenient than buying the portable classrooms.
The officials said there's sound reasoning behind why the district has chosen not to reopen one of three elementary school buildings that were closed to cut costs during the recession and are now used for other purposes: The location for the portable buildings can change, they said, based on the need for space at a particular site.
"If you open a school, it's not going to give you the flexibility you need," Beck told the board.
School Board member Liz Hartman agreed that portables are more convenient because they can be moved, which would help as enrollment fluctuates.
"Right now, the project manager and superintendent are bringing us an opportunity," Hartman told The Review before the meeting.
The modular building purchased by the district Monday can be split into two-classroom units. Tentative plans call for four classrooms to be placed at Lake Grove Elementary and six at Lake Oswego Junior High, possibly as soon as this December. LOJ is crowded, Beck said, and Lake Grove houses overflow kindergarten classes.
But the location and timeline are still subject to change; only the purchase of the portables was approved by the board on Monday. The City's conditional-use permitting process for siting the buildings has not yet begun either.
The 10-plex modular building had been used by Portland Public Schools at Roosevelt High School for the past two years during a construction project. When PPS decided to seek a buyer for the 2-year-old surplus building, a formal document set the price at $800,000. PPS originally bought the modular for $1 million.
LOSD floated an offer of $625,000.
Randy Miller, the district's executive director of project management, said that when PPS accepted the offer late last week, the district jumped at the chance and quickly brought the deal to the School Board for approval. Beck said that such negotiations are not made public to avoid tipping the district's hand to competitors during the bidding process.
At Monday's meeting, School Board member John Wallin asked how much it would cost to install the classrooms — the answer was about $125,000 to $150,000 at each site — and about maintenance of the portables and ongoing costs.
Miller explained that they are "dry" portables that have self-contained heating and don't need plumbing work. Because they are just 2 years old, he added, they won't need too much maintenance.
On the other hand, reopening an elementary school would exceed the purchase price, including the installation and maintenance costs, according to Stuart Ketzler, the district's executive director of finance.
Ketzler told The Review that the cost to reopen an elementary school would be about $1.5 million initially, including investments in furniture and curriculum. He said there would be an additional $700,000 in ongoing annual costs, such as staffing but not counting teachers.
Barman said reopening schools such as Palisades Elementary would require redrawing district boundaries, which is an intensive process that takes time, but could be a future option. In addition, the City of Lake Oswego is currently leasing the Palisades building to house its Parks & Recreation offices. Bryant now serves as the sixth-grade campus for Lakeridge Junior High; if the bond is passed, both would be razed and rebuilt into a school with room for 1,100 students. The campus is currently packed with about 840 students.
Miller pointed out that the Community School is now using Uplands Elementary. And Barman said Uplands is where Oak Creek Elementary students will be housed if the bond is passed because there's a reroofing project slated for the site.
The portability of the new modular classrooms will be important for such bond projects, Beck said, adding that deferred maintenance and seismic upgrades are planned at all 10 K-12 schools.
Barman said this is an important investment for the bond and for the future.
"We need the bond to pass," Barman said, "and we need these classrooms in the interim."
Barman noted that the purchase will bring the total number of portable classrooms in the district to 18, and that he'd like to see that change. Wallin agreed, but not just yet.
"Opening a school or changing boundaries takes more time to work through than we have time to do before next year," Wallin told The Review on Tuesday. "We need an accurate accounting of the savings we have realized from the school reconfiguration and understand the costs of whatever decision we make. Portables give us immediate capacity which we need, and also buy us time to make an informed longer-term decision."
Enrollment is projected to rise for the next several years, according to Riverside, Calif.-based Davis Demographics & Planning Inc. (DDP). DDP used demographic data and other information in a fall 2016 report to determine that enrollment will increase 13.3 percent by 2023. That would be a bump up of 941 students from the October 2016 enrollment count of 7,093 students to 8,034 students. The rise in population would come at all K-12 grade levels, the study states.
"We're full," Barman said at the meeting, "so we're adding capacity because we need to add capacity."