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‘Temporary’ portable classrooms a permanent headache for LAUSD

Craig Clough | April 14, 2015

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LAUSD Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter

LAUSD Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter

Despite spending billions of dollars since 2003 to build new campuses, LA Unified still uses thousands of “portable” or temporary classrooms, and a recent presentation by the district’s Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter made it clear they have become a permanent headache for the district.

Despite recent reduction efforts, the district still uses roughly 8,300 portables, which represents about 30 percent of all available classroom space in LA Unified, and there is no current plan or available money to discontinue their use.

In fact, Hovatter told the school board’s Budget, Facilities, Audit Committee last week, there are 58 portables that the district is required to remove by Sept. 30 that don’t meet current standards but available funding only covers about 88 percent of the work that needs to be done.

Anyone who has spent time around LA Unified campuses won’t have to ask too many questions about what a “portable” classroom is. The temporary structures — sometimes referred to as bungalows or trailers — dot the landscapes of many schools, taking up the lion’s share of what was once a parking lot, playground or green space.

According to Hovatter, as the district’s student population expanded in through the 1990s while no new campuses were built, the use of portables became widespread and grew to around 10,000 in 2003. Reduction efforts have only resulted in a “bite” out of the number of portables in use, he said.

Making it clear he is no fan of portables, Hovatter went through a long list of problems and challenges their use presents. Near the top was the way portables alter the layout, look, feel and functionality of a campus that was built without them.

“We’ve got a lot of campuses that when they were built and designed, were beautiful campuses. Some received national awards,” Hovatter said. “Dorsey High received a national award for the layout of the campus. But then we came in and plopped down portables in places without taking into consideration the effectiveness and the flow of that campus, and it created an environment that you wouldn’t have believed had won a national design [award].”

He also said that portables “are supposed to be temporary in use, and we might have stretched the definition of what temporary means in our case, but certainly the intent was not to be a permanent facility.”

Board member Monica Ratliff said at the meeting that portables had taken up space in what was once the faculty parking lots of Van Nuys Elementary and Oxnard Elementary schools, and school personnel now had to park on the street. Many staff members, including the principal at Van Nuys, had received parking tickets as a result, she said.

“I am extremely aghast at the number of portables in Board District 6, and I want to get rid of the portables in Board District 6. I don’t think any child belongs in a portable,” Ratliff said.

Hovatter said removing portables is not as simple as pulling in a truck and hauling the portable away. Some have been there many years, and removing them may require special permits and removing fences or power poles just to access to them. Some of the portables that need to be removed by September are blocked in by other portables, which will also have to be removed.

Hovatter said the average cost of removing one portable can reach $100,000. He also said he supports any measure that creates funds for permanent structures while removing portables and restricts their future use and installation.

“We’ve got to be smart about what we look at,” he said. “While it’s a tool that’s available, as with any tool, if we use it correctly it’s a good thing. If we use it incorrectly it leads to more harm than good.”

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