Public school overcrowding - Portable classroom debate

With the Seattle area continuing to grow and the economy strong, every school district within a commutable distance of the employment corridor is facing overcrowding.  While a strong economy is a positive, the increased population with school age children is putting a strain on existing facilities and the school property footprint.  School districts continue to look at ways to fund new school construction projects and accurately predict enrollment trends.

It is important when evaluating a school district and individual schools within the district to understand their growth plan, restraints and new construction plans. 

With overcrowding, the standard fix and the least expensive solution, is to add portable classrooms.  Portable classrooms are stand alone temporary units that add 1 usable classroom space to the school.  In most cases, a school needs to add several portables to accommodate student growth.  These portables sit on school property and in most cases occupy space that was used for a playground or sporting field.  Historically, they are inexpensive to construct,  unattractive, dark, poor air circulation and not well insulated. 

Just one of many schools in the Seattle area, Laurelhurst Elementary School has continued to see excessive growth for their K-5th grade school.  Many of the houses in this upscale neighborhood that borders Lake Washington and the University of Washington campus, have recently been purchased by young families. 

Laurelhurst Elementary School already has the smallest playground with the highest lot coverage percentage of any NE Seattle elementary school.  Over neighborhood and parent objections, The Seattle School District just added an additional portable for the 2015-16 school year, reducing the playground again.  The district has no plan in place to address the overcrowding and stated their is no money in the budget for construction or redesign of the school.  This is not unique to Laurelhurst and many public elementary schools in Seattle are operating classrooms in portables with parent groups lobbying for a long term solution to address the district's growth.

On the east side of Lake Washington, The Lake Washington School District, a high-performing public school district serving Kirkland, Redmond, and Sammamish, just opened 13 new green portable classrooms (SAGE) for the 2015-16 school year.  The rooms’ designs provide four times more natural light, fresh air and 150 percent more air circulation than traditional portable classrooms.  Even with parents and students preferring school building contained classrooms, the SAGE portables address many of the negatives associated with portable classrooms, but still reduce the school ground footprint.

The new SAGE classrooms will help accommodate the district’s growing student population, which increased by more than 10 percent in the past five years.  “We are bursting at the seams,” Lake Washington Director of Student Services Forrest Miller said. “The greatest need is a place for students to learn. And we want students to have spaces they can learn well in.”

The SAGE classrooms take a third less time to build than a standard portable classroom. The exact price of each room varies, but a SAGE classroom, on average, costs about twice as much as a standard portable.  The district invested in these newly designed greener portables, as they acknowledged these will be used longer term and offer a better classroom experience verses the standard portables. 

Overcrowding and the lack of school space is not unique to the Seattle area.  Many school districts in California are facing the same issues and continue to lobby for the school districts to address the growth with a long term plan verses spending money on a temporary fix.