Temporary classrooms may become semi-permanent fixtures

School district seeks to extend 3-year permit

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The temporary classrooms built three years ago to ease a space crunch in Williston schools will apparently remain in place for a few more years.

School officials said in 2002 that the so-called modular classrooms appended to Allen Brook School would be a stopgap measure until a permanent building expansion could be completed. But now, with enrollment leveling off and plans for the building expansion on hold, the district will seek to extend the permit for their use through the 2007-08 school year.

"Right now, I think we’re probably going to keep them until then," said Williston School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby. "They have been an effective way to do things while we think our plans out."

School officials say they have little choice but to keep the modular classrooms, which are doublewide trailers adapted for educational use. They accommodate roughly 80 students, and school officials assert that the main buildings at Allen Brook and Williston Central School are at capacity.

"The modulars seem to be meeting a need, and we clearly need space," said School Board member Karla Karstens. "Plus, we can keep renewing them until we decide if and when to build."

The district has in recent years been caught between uncertain enrollment trends and waning voter support for school spending.

Until the last two school years, enrollment in the Williston School District had risen by an average of 37 students a year. In the 2003-04 school year, however, enrollment declined by two students. In the current school year, a tally done in October showed enrollment down by five students.

"The growth hasn’t occurred as fast as everyone expected three or four years ago," said Bob Mason, chief operations manager for Chittenden South Supervisory Union, which serves as central administration for Williston and other area school districts. "That has allowed the board to be more deliberate."

Meanwhile, passage of the annual school budget is no longer the sure thing it was in the past. Voters rejected the budget in 2003, and this year’s spending plan passed by just 11 votes.

The situation has made the School Board reluctant to propose a pricey expansion project. One of the most discussed plans in recent years called for doubling the size of Allen Brook School at an estimated cost of $6 million.

A School Board-appointed committee has met to discuss building expansion plans over the past few months. Karstens, who serves on the committee, said the group will revisit previous plans for expanding Allen Brook, but she wonders if such a big project is still needed.

Mason said it is uncertain if the district will keep the modular classrooms in place until or beyond when they are paid off in 2008. But he acknowledged that because of the specialized nature of the structures, it could be difficult to sell them.

The school district had originally considered leasing the structures. But after discovering that leasing would cost more than budgeted, the district opted to buy them outright. Voters approved $345,000 funding for the structures and additional staff in 2002.

The town’s Development Review Board approved a site plan for the modular classrooms in July 2002. Among the numerous conditions attached to the approval was a requirement that the structures be removed after three years. Mason said he recently inquired about extending that sunset clause for another three years.

The modular classrooms stirred controversy when they were first proposed. Some parents did not want their children housed in them, amid concerns about studies that showed materials inside newly built trailers could emit toxic vapors and worries that exhaust fumes from nearby buses could pollute the air inside the units.

The School District initially tried to save money by not using a consultant to draw up plans. That caused delays as the Development Review Board rejected the initial design, saying the plans failed to meet safety codes.

By the time the plans were approved, it was too late to finish the project before the school year started. Some students were forced to attend classes in the school’s gymnasium for a few weeks.

The district has been paying a portion of the $670,000 total cost for the units each year. Mason said the board could opt to sell them at any point.

But with any school expansion project certain to take years to be completed — and no groundswell of opposition among students and staff to being housed in the modular classrooms — it appears the modular classrooms will stay in place for the immediate future.

"Parents, students and staff seem to like them," Sundby said. "So as long as we are not outgrowing our space, let’s take our time in planning. We don’t want to overbuild."