Portable classroom plan at Berkeley schools delayed

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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 Change.org 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.

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  • David Fisher

    Thanks for the report Tracey. Minor corrections: correct names are Mark Zoidis and Caryn Pellegrino.

  • MonkeyChicka

    I’m not sure how I feel about this recent development. My daughter will start school there in the fall, and will be in one of the portables (just like her father was back when they were new). I would rather her be in a four or five years’ old portable than a 30+ years’ old one, that’s for sure. The district has no money, so how does this help? We can work on safety issues, but a new building isn’t going to materialize.

  • Laura Walker

    Welcome to Washington! The strange fact is, there is money. It’s just currently allocated for other things. In 2010 Berkeley citizens generously passed a $210 million dollar bond to “construct new classrooms for growth.” What is that money slated to be spent on? Among other things, $24 million dollars for new district offices, $3.1 million dollars for a new board room, $15 million for plant operations facility, and portions of the new high school stadium bleachers and baseball field. All of these are worthy projects. But are they more worthy than getting BUSD’s kids out of portables? What did the voters intend when they passed the Measure? How were priorities set? The bond’s money has been allocated for these other projects, but the school board has the authority to change that allocation, and we think they should.

  • Laura Walker

    And re: voters’ intentions for Measure I’s money, here’s the text of the measure as it appeared on the ballot: Measure I: To improve school safety and facilities for learning and teaching, shall Berkeley Unified School District issue $210,000,000 in bonds at interest rates within the legal limit, to construct new classrooms for growth, complete seismic upgrades, construct science labs, upgrade computers and education technology, renovate playgrounds, replace restrooms, cafeterias, roofs, heating and fire safety systems, remove hazardous materials, improve energy efficiency, and qualify for State grants, with independent audits and citizen oversight? The State cannot take the funds.

  • David. Minor but important. I appreciate the corrections and will fix now.

  • guest

    What effect (if any) would ending busing have on new classroom construction?

  • MonkeyChicka

    You’ve made some really good points. Here’s one thing: I do agree $24 million for district office renovation is way too much (I know some about what they’ve been doing over the years at the district office) and much of that surely could be used to help the situation at Washington. But rather than have them store the portables at a cost of $80K over the year and the kids having to use the old ones still, why couldn’t we get the newer portables so at least kids in the short term have newer ones, and then we can keep the pressure on BUSD to do more? (That may not work, but not using the newer portables now seems like a waste.) I’m also already at Washington. My son just finished 3rd grade there. :)

  • Charles_Siegel

    Noted without comment:

    “installed in the late 1960s as a temporary measure.”

  • guest

    The presence/absence of portables definitely played a role in ranking school choice when we applied for BUSD elementary schools (zone lottery). I don’t think it’s fair at all for some kids to have to sit in portable buildings all day, while others sit in beautiful schools in other parts of town.

  • EBGuy

    Not much… on one hand, it may actually increase enrollment. There are still some folks, who, if they don’t get there first choice in the lottery, will end up going the private route.
    At the same time, if you start concentrating all the socioeconomically challenged kids at one school, you may get more problems and, some parents may withdraw their kids.

  • EBGuy

    How many kids in your child’s classroom are from out of district? Now multiply that by every class in every elementary school in Berkeley. All of a sudden the portables are no longer necessary (as well as “makeshift” classrooms with no direct windows to the outdoors). Berkeley is a highly desirable school district. It needs to adopt common sense measures to prevent enrollment fraud. One simple measure used by other districts is to require proof of home ownership (deed of trust) or a signed rental agreement. Until we address these district wide issues, individual schools will continue to suffer the consequences.

  • Laura Walker

    Hey, Andi! I completely agree with you if we can somehow do both– but from what I understand I think it’s going to cost about $3 million to install the used portables— and if permanent building construction is roughly $5 million, maybe we need to save that $3 million to apply to new construction? But, like I said, I’d prefer both (though a teacher did tell me that the old portable dimensions are actually perhaps better than the new portables for elementary ed– the new portables are longer and thinner and not as conducive to gathering on the rug, for example…. for what that’s worth…)

  • Another BUSD parent

    Absolutely agreed. There are some serious equity issues to be addressed here, in terms of facilities and overcrowding.

  • feeling cranky

    probably a similar effect to say, I don’t know let’s pick something topical that seems like a good analogy, ending the voting rights act? hmmm…why were the south and west branch libraries the last to be renovated? yeah, that’s what we need more ways for “neighborhoods” to only look out for themselves.

  • Peter Kuhn

    Thanks for posting the ballot measure language. It is so very similar to Measure AA in 2000, which called for new classrooms at Berkeley High and which have yet to be built and now all the money is gone. New day, new bond measure, same outcome. Welcome to BUSD. I really cannot imagine another school district in this country that can get away with such things.

  • The_Sharkey

    Wanting your kid to be able to go to the school that’s within walking distance rather than having to be driven across town is the same thing as institutional racism? What?

  • EBGuy

    For a peak inside the portables, see this article from The Berkeley Daily Planet:
    Children Exposed to Asbestos at Washington Elementary School

  • mark lemkin

    Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) raised $327 Million between measure AA (2000) and Measure I (2010); these were bond measures paid for by local taxpayers. These bonds represent an
    investment in the community of roughly $13,000 per household.

    There are 9400 students in BUSD. Thus, the $327M in Measure AA and I funds corresponds to approximately $1M per classroom of students.

    One Million dollars would be enough to equip each class in BUSD with not one new classroom but TWO new classrooms ($450/sq ft as estimated by BUSD facilities).

    Where has the money gone / going? You can find it here:


    $24M on New district headquarters
    $15M to replace a facility for plant operations.
    And a $3.3 Million board room for BUSD.

    However, the problem with BUSD is much bigger than simply trying to replace 50+ year old portables at Washington and portables at BAM with newer-used portables. The problem is larger than elementary school students unsafely crossing the street for years. The problem is more than Elementary schools being so much over capacity that children don’t have time to finish their lunches before their afternoon classes.

    A major cause all of the dysfunction and that problem is that BUSD has no master plan.

    What is a master plan? A master plan is a plan for spending including relevant and important information like: where are the children coming from, how many classrooms are we going to
    need, how many classrooms do we presently have, here is our proposed way we are
    going to solve the facilities needs and this is how much it will cost.

    It isn’t rocket science. It’s deciding what you should do with the money before you spend it.

    Oakland, Western Contra Costa, San Francisco, and basically almost every school district I checked had Master plans.

    If you want to see a good one look at Menlo Park’s which has projections of student enrollment up to 10 years out.


  • guest

    Mr. Lemkin, as a BUSD parent, I thank you for this post.

    A BUSD master plan requiring projections for future demand would necessarily call the question on fraudulent registration. Our city’s demographics don’t support the explosion in elementary school registrations.

    Using Measure AA funds to scale BUSD into an East Bay School District is going to happen unless Berkeley parents stop it now.

  • slightly less cranky

    If you couldn’t tell from the moniker, the post was knowingly on the snarky side. But are you completely unaware of why busing was instituted originally? Or how ideas like those you express regarding “just wanting what’s best/easy/convenient for MY kid” are exactly the type of things that sound innocent but in their willful disregard to the larger community as a whole, led to things like “separate but equal” provisions? Of course the the comparison isn’t fair, but it is not in the least unconnected. My original post was trying to call attention to the fact that ending busing as a means to help with new classroom construction is the out of left field connection.

    Now can we talk about master plans and the like? You know, big picture planning for all, rather than some free for all of who yells loud enough for their corner of Berkeley?

  • Andrew Doran

    Yes, planning good. “community input” is not the same thing. That is to say, holding community meetings is part of the initial planning process, but it is akin to the brain storming session. I really like this line of discussion. In the business world the term “strategic plan” is often used as well. The point is to take the time, outside of the day to day fire drills, and plan out medium and long term projects and goals that then guide your institution. You deal with decisions by seeing how the relevant issues match up to the already deliberated and decided upon master or strategic plan. You’re absolutely right, it isn’t rocket science, it is institutional planning 101. And it is also great politics, because you don’t have to have all the shouting matches with individual effected parties over each small decision and re explain the balancing act behind everything. You have that debate holistically up front. And of course master plans evolve over the years. You re-visit them periodically. It is about sound decision making and no less important, transparency. Hear hear.

  • Washington Parent

    Actually there are only 2 out of district kids and their parents are Berkeley teachers.
    When my kid first entered the Berkeley school system, I had to make copies of my driver’s license, my husband’s paystubs, etc.

  • caryn pelegrino

    I want to clarify one point and celebrate our community.
    There are now phones in the annex classrooms, but no intercom system that allows communication to all classrooms at once, as in the main building.
    Once the safety audit is available next month, we will have a better sense of what our campus needs and we can add additional input from teachers and our New principal.

    I also want to praise the Washington community for the sweat equity and love we have put into the annex space in recent years ( not visible in the old pictures posted in this thread.)
    These efforts and the spirit behind them point to why I chose the Washington community.
    We work together and take care of each other, and it has a ripple effect in the larger community.
    ” We are Washington…”
    Thank you Washington.
    Caryn Pelegrino

  • MacWain

    This whole thing grabs me deeply. The most profound truth as I see it is left unspoken. The quality of one’s education relies on two basic truths. The ability of the teacher to reach the student, and the student’s curiosity, ability, and willingness to learn. My son was deeply shifted by the quality of his moments at Washington this year. He was in B9 with one of the best teachers I have ever come across.
    Education really has little to do with a facility, unless it is some very overheated and very loud environment. It has everything to do with relationship, teacher to student, student to parent, teacher to teacher, etc. Some of the finest citizens come from one room school houses with all grades sitting together.
    I agree there are added risks with the bathroom situation, etc. but modern walls or old walls have little to do with education. I feel so fortunate for my daughter’s and my son’s experience at Washington, has been so fruitful. My daughter just finished her fifth grade highly motivated to learn, read, and be involved.
    Newer portables, maybe video cameras with a computer tone whenever a child crosses the street during school hours with monitors at the office front desk, maybe an open bridge over the street visible to all plus a camera, I don’t have solutions, but somehow our focus is on the building when it matters little to education. Newer portables would be nicer, New building with some connected corridor ideal, but please stay focused on the quality of education, not the box it is done in.

  • The_Sharkey

    Perhaps people from the hills and the extreme south of Berkeley need busing to keep their schools from being monochromatic, but my neighborhood in the flats is extremely diverse both economically and ethnically, and the students here would benefit more from being able to walk to their schools than they do from any hazy “benefits” of being driven across town.

    If you want to talk about a master plan, go ahead. Nobody’s stopping you. Heck, it might even be more productive than trying to defend our current crappy busing system.

  • The_Sharkey

    Wow, that’s awful.
    The portables *I* was in in high school were newer than these things!

    How shameful that multiple generations of families in Berkeley are being forced to use such substandard facilities. How can a school system that’s so relatively flush with cash allow things to get this bad?

  • Dana Smith

    Just wanted to chime in as a family from the hills who lives two blocks from Cragmont, but happily drives the 12 minutes to Washington everyday. To me, the Berkeley lottery system (I would not call it busing) is one of the main reasons we can all rest assured that every child in our city has the opportunity to go to a wonderful school. Sure, it would be fantastic if the neighborhood kids were bonded through school, but now that my daughter is off to King, that is happening. A short 12-minute drive seems like a very small price to pay for giving my own kids a rich and diverse school experience (actually, comparable to what they’d get if they did go to Cragmont). And the entire community benefits by creating equal access to solid education. To me, the benefits far outweigh the inconveniences.

  • guest

    “Yes, planning good. “community input” is not the same thing”

    That is wisdom beyond words. Our confusion of the two is epic. Berkeley politicians use ‘community input’ to validate their ‘consensus’ and call that a plan. The professionals we hire to plan (city manager, school superintendent, etc.) have a plan; They plan to keep their jobs by not disturbing the ‘consensus’.

    The result being high minded, great sounding, rapaciously taxing, ineffective, directionless plodding along. But certainly that’s irrelevant when the near term plan is to give everyone what they, now. And let the future take care of itself.

    Besides it’ll be years before we run through the whole $237M.

  • Laura Walker

    Such a great point, Caryn. We also placed Washington as our first choice because of its incredible community and amazing teachers and staff, and the way we all come together to make our school the best it can be. Thank you, Washington!

  • Anonymous

    As someone involved in administration, I can tell you there are A LOT of students who do not live in the district who are not even going through the legal methods to be enrolled in Berkeley schools. When school mail is sent out, a much higher percentage than one expects come back as undeliverable. And on forms, there many crossed out addresses changed to Berkeley addresses. I don’t want students kicked out of schools where they already have a community but this is a MAJOR issue that the district has not allotted enough person power to deal with.

  • anonymous

    please note, this article is from 2010 and the issue has been addressed by maintenance. However, it is shameful that it ever happened.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I wonder who are the people down voting this call for transparency?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I certainly agree. I’d point out, however, that the students who leave can have a community in the schools where they live. Berkeley has no monopoly on community.

  • guest

    A partial list:

    BUSD employee unions whose memberships rely on an ever expanding student population to ensure increased salaries, benefits and more jobs for new members.

    BUSD School Board members who are elected by these unions to serve their interests.

    Some old timer progs who believe that fraudulent registration, which steals funding from other school districts and makes kids outsiders in their own neighborhoods, is social justice. It’s not.

    You don’t run from where you come from. – K. Lamar

  • millermp1

    “willful disregard to the larger community as a whole”

    I wouldn’t say it’s willful disregard, just that some people don’t share Berkeley’s enthusiasm of using their children to make political statements.

  • millermp1

    monochromatic – you mean not unlike the NAACP and Rainbow coalition?

  • EBGuy

    Half the portables at Washington Elementary have been torn down as of this morning. I imagine the rest will be gone by the end of the week as they make room for the “new” ones from the high school.

  • EBGuy

    They’re putting in trees today… Definitely down to the wire. They put the parking lot off to the left and made a U shpaed “village” configuration of the classrooms and restrooms.