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The portable classrooms at Washington Elementary School were installed in the late 1960s as a temporary measure. Photo: Google Street View

A school district proposal to replace decades-old portable classrooms at Berkeley’s Washington Elementary and Berkeley Arts Magnet schools with a set of newer ones that are being removed from the Berkeley High campus, has been delayed for further consideration after concerns were expressed by parents at the schools.

At Wednesday night’s BUSD Board meeting, it was agreed that the plan (some of the details of which can be viewed here), that had originally been slated for approval on June 12, would be rescheduled to the Sept. 9 school board meeting.

The portables at BAM and Washington were installed in the lates 1960s as a temporary measure. In the latter case, they form Washington’s annex campus on McKinley St. across from the school’s main campus. The decision to switch them out with the BHS portables, which are 4-5  years’ old, was taken in 2011 as part of a system replacements plan funded by the 2010 $210m Measure I bond measure.

Many current parents at the school began to voice concerns after hearing of the plan earlier this year.

There are many issues at play, some of which go beyond the portable buildings. Parents are in agreement with the district that the age of the existing portables present health and safety risks. They are worried about the limited security at the annex site, which is not locked. In particular, there is the fact that young children have to use outdoor bathrooms that are clearly visible on the street. Also seen as risky: the fact that kids need to cross McKinley St. to go from one campus to another. The street is only closed to traffic at certain times of day.

The broader issue is that Washington School is also seen has being over-enrolled, which partly accounts for the existence of the annex. The portables were originally used only for science and cooking programs. Now they are classified as homerooms for several classes. The size of the school also means students are only allocated 15 minutes in which to get their lunch.

Several parents formed the Washington Annex Group to ensure parents’ voices were heard. A petition was launched to “stop the Washington Berkeley Arts Magnet Portables Project”. It has so far gathered 250 signatures.

On June 5,  district staff met with the school community at the Washington theater. Co-Superintendent Javetta Cleveland attended, as did BUSD Board Chair Karen Hemphill, BUSD’s Director of Facilities Lew Jones, outgoing Washington Principal Rita Kimball, and a representative from the HKIT Architects who have drawn up the plans for a redesigned annex.

Parents spoke of how disappointed they were at not having been aware of the plan to put in new portables until recently. “We came together because this was presented to us as a fait accompli,” said Leslie Firestone, one of the parents on the WAG committee. The district said there was an extensive public process for the bond measure and its projects.

Andrew Page shared with Berkeleyside a letter he wrote about the issue to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month. In it he wrote: “Do Berkeley tax-payers want kids to go to school in portable out-buildings? I don’t think so. They have generously supported our schools even when the state has not. So how has the Berkeley School Board adopted a plan to replace the totally unsatisfactory, tin-shack portable my daughter goes to school in with — get this — the cast-off portables from across the street at the High School?”

Heather Flett, a parent of two children at Washington with a third likely to start there in three years, said she had been shocked to learn at the June 5 meeting that the portables were older than she was. Flett’s concerns center on health and safety, especially bathroom security and street crossing, but she is also worried about how disconnected the main campus is from the annex.

“My kindergartner thinks his older brother goes to another school,” she said.

Speaking at last night’s BUSD Board meeting, parent Mark Zoidis said: “BUSD’s Facilities are essentially looking at this as a dollars and cents real-estate issue. It’s an act of hostility if the board takes Facilities’ recommendation. We are going to stand up for an Elementary School Bill of Rights. And it will say: all elementary school students in Berkeley deserve 25 mins for lunch, deserve clean and safe access to bathrooms, deserve roughly equal real-estate quality and roughly equal safety.”

Hemphill, whose own children went to Washington and were housed in the portables, said in an ideal world there would be no portables — or at a minimum they would only be used for enrichment purposes — and that she agrees with the parents that safety issues need to be addressed. “The lack of safety is unacceptable,” she said before last night’s meeting.

At last night’s board meeting, outgoing PTA President of Washington, Caryn Pellegrino, spoke of the two recent lockdowns at Washington due to gun incidents in the neighborhood, as well as the presence of a flasher in the area. “There is no intercom system between the campuses, and no way to alert the annex to dangers,” she said.

A safety audit for Washington is due to be received by BUSD this month.

In the meantime, the question is whether it is preferable to keep the existing portables or to replace them. There is no budget for construction of a permanent building. “Even if we could approve a new building that would not likely come to fruition for five years,” said Hemphill.

Flett said  she wonders what the options are going forward. “I’m concerned a new set of portables will turn into a 10 to 40 year solution.”

The district has calculated that it will cost about $80,000 to delay the project by a year, mainly for the storage of the newer portables. The cost of buying new portables rather than using BHS ones would be $800,000.

On Sept. 9 staff are expected to recommend that the board proceed with the current plan incorporating new advice on safety issues, while considering longer term outcomes including funding a permanent building if needed.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...