MUSD to spend $3.2 million on portable classrooms

MUSD Chief Financial Officer Jacob Harmon explained the rationale for the district purchasing 7 portable classroom buildings for $3.2 million at the board's Jan. 25 meeting.. The buildings will house 14 classrooms and will be placed at four of the city's elementary schools. [Jay Taylor]

Maricopa Unified School District unanimously approved spending $3.2 million to purchase seven portable-classroom buildings for the coming school year.

The buildings, which each have two classrooms and cover 1,876 square feet, cost $403,000 each. There is a $47,000 contingency built into construction of each for a final cost of $450,000 each, according to MUSD Chief Financial Officer Jacob Harmon.

The portable buildings are considerably less expensive than a traditionally framed classroom building, which Harmon said checks in at $576,726 each, including the contingency fund.

Projected growth over the next two years is creating the need for the portable classrooms. The district is projected to be 14 classrooms short for the 2023-24 school year and 46 short in 2024-25.

“Next year, we start to see a shift in capacity,” Harmon said. “By fiscal year 2026, if we don’t bring in additional space or change the way we allocate or use our space we will be 46 rooms short, and that trend continues to grow through fiscal year 2028.

“We have a solid plan to get through next year. It’s really the couple of years before we get another school that are most concerning. It will force us to use multiple strategies to ensure we accommodate everyone as best we can without affecting the total student experience. These are not strategies for next year, but potential strategies for the future.”

Harmon said the district is projected to grow by 231 elementary students next year. Even with that growth, the district may not qualify for a seventh elementary school until the 2027-28 school year based on how the Arizona School Facilities Board calculates capacity. Harmon said the SFB determines when additional schools are needed by classroom square footage, not number of students or number of classrooms.

The total elementary-school classroom capacity according to SFB is 4,933 students across the city’s six elementary schools.

“In fiscal year ’27 we exceed capacity according to the SFB,” Harmon said. “Our goal is to have SFB agree with our growth projections and approve funding for an elementary school. If we could put 26 students in each room, we could theoretically fit 5,642 students in our elementary schools and survive through fiscal year 2028 until we could open another school in fiscal year ’29. That is exactly how the state expects us to operate. This is how they allocate state funding and determine capacities.”

Harmon said the district looked at alternatives before deciding on the portable classrooms. Modular, portable and conventionally framed classrooms all were options. But the modular classrooms could not be ready in time for the 2023-24 school year and the framed option was more than 20% more expensive.

“We didn’t like the non-flexible nature of those (framed) buildings, but we wanted to find out if they were cheaper and if we could control the timeline and availability. At almost $580,000 for a two-classroom building the cost was higher than the comparable portable classroom buildings and those portables give us flexibility and the ability to move them in the future.”

The district plans to pay for the classrooms with carry-forward funds, Harmon said. He added that available carry-forward funds is approximately $8.5 million.

Governing Board member Patti Coutre pointed out that these are strictly classrooms and there are no restrooms and only plumbing for fire sprinklers. As such, they cannot be used for pre-school classes because those require bathrooms.

Dr. Tracey Lopeman, shown here at a pre-opening event at Desert Sunrise High School, explained the need for portable classrooms at the Jan. 25 MJUSD governing board meeting.

Harmon said restrooms can be added to the portable classroom buildings in the future if required, as the district did at Maricopa High. It would simply result in a larger budget.

“We have potential to grow so much over the next 10 years, especially at the elementary and high school levels, that we could potentially re-use these,” Harmon said.

MUSD Superintendent Dr. Tracey Lopeman said portable rooms are a pre-emptive strike against growth in the district.

“We’re gradually stepping into accommodating our growth,” Lopeman said. “We know that in the market, development in this city is uncertain. We know there is a certain level that is guaranteed based on permits and inspections. But we don’t know much beyond that. So, maybe a year or two down the road our projections become less and less reliable because it is just such an unknown.

“So we’re walking carefully and slowly into this purchase of 14 classrooms this year, or at least for the start of the year. It gives us the confidence that we aren’t overinvesting in this. If we find growth is showing up on the 10th day and the 40th day (of the school year), we know that we have a plan already in place, and a timeline. We know if we have to bring in seven more portable buildings, we may be able to do that by January or February. So, this is a long-term plan.”