Minn. District Closes 16 Portable Classrooms

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Officials in Forest Lake, Minn., thought they had solved their classroom crunch, at least temporarily, by adding portable classrooms to accommodate the district's growing enrollment.

But the discovery this fall of potentially dangerous defects in the construction and installation of 16 prefabricated structures has put the squeeze back on.

Since the portables were declared off-limits, roughly 250 students have been jammed into band rooms, computer labs, and "wherever we can find space for more than an hour at a time," said Don Ruble, the superintendent of the 8,000-student district about 25 miles north of Minneapolis.

"I'm as frustrated as anybody," he added. "We have got to find a place for the kids."

Several of the portable classrooms were manufactured by Arrow Mobile Structures Inc. of Elkhart, Ind. Officials there could not be reached for comment.

Minnesota officials said last week that no other problems had been reported with portable classrooms elsewhere in the state, and officials in other states said such defects were rare.

Numerous Defects

Like many other districts, Forest Lake resorted to portable classrooms when local voters failed to pass bond referendums for school construction.

Last month, the district's building official, Tom Borchardt, discovered structural defects in the portable classrooms at Forest View Elementary School. The problems ranged from improper insulation to weak ceiling connections that were fixed with staples instead of screws.

Under a heavy load of Minnesota snow, Mr. Borchardt said, the ceiling beams could have collapsed.

District officials then decided to shut down the portable classrooms in a second elementary school because the structures there were also manufactured by Arrow.

More recently, the Forest Lake City Council voted to have students vacate portable classrooms at a district junior high school that were manufactured by a different company after Mr. Borchardt reported that they too had defects, including inadequate insulation and walls that had not been fireproofed.

In each instance, Mr. Borchardt said, the problems with the portables resulted from a combination of manufacturing defects and the improper setup and installation of the portables on school sites.

In a report to GE Capital Modular Space, the national contracting company hired to outfit the district with its portables, Mr. Borchardt recommended that some of the portables be repaired, and others replaced entirely.

Design Deviations

A spokeswoman for the Malvern, Pa.-based contractor said the problems occurred because the manufacturers of the portable structures deviated from design specifications.

The errors were not caught by the private, third-party inspectors who are responsible for ensuring that the classrooms meet Minnesota state building codes, said Paula Johnston, the spokeswoman.

"This is a highly unusual circumstance," she added. "Usually, if there are any structural problems, they are caught by the third-party inspector."

Meanwhile, district officials are working with GE Capital Modular to have the portables fixed or replaced as quickly as possible, said Dennis Sullivan, the district's director of business affairs.

"It'll be several weeks, at least," he said last week, before students can return to them. "We just want the portables we contracted for in place."

Following the closure of Forest Lake's portables, state building officials have begun to reinspect some portables in other districts, said Steven Hernick, a supervisor in the building codes and standards division of the Minnesota Department of Administration. As of last week, no other portable classrooms were determined to be unfit for occupancy.

Problems Rare

In California, where more than 25,000 portable classrooms are currently in use, structural problems are rarely, if ever, a problem, said Henry Heydt, the assistant director for the school facilities planning division of the state education department.

Mr. Heydt said the state's construction standards for its portables are unusually stringent because of requirements that the classrooms must be able to withstand earthquakes.

Portable classrooms range in price from about $35,000 to $60,000, depending on the features of each unit, Mr. Heydt said. Generally, he added, the construction in even the least-expensive models is solid.

Officials in the Orange County, Fla., school system were forced to replace rotting, moldy floors in many of the district's modular classrooms last year because the structures were designed and installed with moisture-trapping dirt berms packed underneath and around them. ("Resignation Follows Portable-Classroom Flap," Nov. 27, 1996.)

But Brewser Brown, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, said the district's problems with its portables were unusual.

"If you install them the right way and integrate them properly into the school, it's not going to be a problem," he said.

But Mr. Ruble, the Forest Lake superintendent, says his district's problems reinforce the view that portables are not the same as new school buildings.

"Portable classrooms are not bricks and mortar," he said. "They are a temporary solution."

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