Weast Hopes to Shut More Portable Classrooms

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Montgomery County school system has begun to wean itself off portable classrooms, the boxy trailers that multiplied in school athletic fields over the past decade, school officials said yesterday.

The number of portables in use countywide fell about one-third to 462 this fall, down from the 2005 peak of 685. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said he plans to use his capital budget to trim the number to 256 by 2012, a reduction of about two-thirds.

"It will certainly send a message that these were temporary and we want to move people into regular facilities," Weast said.

Weast's projection was part of a $258 million spending plan for school construction and renovation for the fiscal year that begins in July. The capital budget proposal reflects an increase of $19 million, or 8 percent, from the $239 million budget approved by the County Council for the current year.

Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), chairman of the council's education committee, said that Weast's request was "in the ballpark" of what the council would approve.

Portable classrooms tripled in number in 10 years, driven by three factors -- rising enrollment, class-size reduction and expansion of kindergarten from a half-day to a full day. Now, enrollment has stabilized, and the other goals have been reached.

Those adjustments, along with a number of multimillion-dollar school expansion projects, have allowed school officials to reduce the number of portables in use countywide to 462, with further reductions to come in each of the next five years.

Parents have noticed a difference. With more trailers than permanent classrooms, Cresthaven Elementary in Silver Spring was once the archetype of portable classrooms. Today, the field behind the school is empty, thanks to the construction of nearby Roscoe Nix Elementary School.

"We really lost a lot of playing area and soccer fields," said Emily Ederer, a parent at Cresthaven. "And now, there aren't any portables at all."

Last year, Weast and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) disagreed publicly on the pace and funding of portable-classroom reductions. Leggett did not pass along Weast's proposal for $40 million in amendments to the capital plan for classroom additions that would have accelerated removal of the temporary classrooms. Leggett said the work would proceed "at a different pace" than Weast had sought.

Weast's revised timetable for eliminating portables reflects a more modest schedule. A year ago, he had proposed reducing the number to 229 by 2012.

Just two years ago, Montgomery parents led the outcry against the proliferation of portable classrooms statewide. Today, the complaints have subsided.

"I don't think it's at quite the same level that it was a couple of years ago, because I think there's been progress," Knapp said.

Knapp said he believes that the council, which has the final say on school spending, will go along with the reductions Weast seeks as long as they don't conflict with more pressing priorities, such as relieving overcrowding.

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