In the Golden State, Schools' Space Needs Translate Into Big Business

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Riverside, Calif.

If you follow the money, a path lined in gold can be traced from California Gov. Pete Wilson's Sacramento office through rolling hills and orange groves to Riverside's Aurora Modular Industries.

The state's tremendous enrollment growth, paired with Mr. Wilson's ambitious plan to lower the size of the state's K-3 classes to 20 pupils or fewer, has had the modular-classroom manufacturer--call them modulars, call them relocatable, but please don't call them portables--working overtime to meet districts' demand for more space.

California's school population is the fastest growing in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education; and is expected to soar from 5.5 million last year to 6.4 million by the 2007-08 school year.

"Our business used to be growth, and growth has been unreal," Clint Pooley, the company's director of sales, said recently over the din of construction at the company's hangar-size plant about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. "Now it's growth and class-size reduction."

In the past few years, according to Mr. Pooley, Aurora has doubled its business, with output jumping from 1,200 "floors"--as they're called in the industry--in 1995 to 1,800 in 1996 to about 3,500 last year. Aurora's gross revenues have grown from $13.4 million in 1995 to $61.6 million last year.

"Business," Mr. Pooley said, "has been booming."

Good, Solid Investment

On a recent tour of the plant's busy assembly line here, Kevin Kothlow, Aurora's marketing director, said the quality of modulars has gone up with demand over the years.

Each classroom, which on average sells for about $30,000 to $35,000, is custom-made according to state specifications and district preferences, he said. It takes the plant about one full day to put together a classroom's steel chassis, and another full day to hang drywall, paint the interior, and lay carpet. It's up to individual districts to get the modulars' sites ready, leveling the land and installing plumbing, electrical wiring, and phone lines. Schools also must ensure that the buildings meet fire codes and are accessible to people with disabilities.

"What we're building are solid, well-designed classrooms. They're portable, but with a permanent feel," said Mr. Kothlow, a former banker who was recently hired to, among other things, help manage new construction projects and promote Aurora through a company Web site.

The company's schools feel so permanent, in fact, that it is the first of the state's modular manufacturers to take business to the next level: relocatable schools.

Modular Schools

Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Corona, Calif., which opened its doors last July, is one of four schools Aurora has built entirely out of modular classrooms. The 36 steel-gray and navy-blue stucco-covered buildings on the school's 13-acre campus are cleanly and strikingly modern. Taken together, they look nothing like traditional portable classrooms.

The 700-student school in this community near Riverside cost $5 million and was built in about five months, Mr. Kothlow said. Construction costs for permanent elementary schools, he said, average about $10 million in the state. Corona has no plans to replace its relocatable school with a permanent facility.

"It's not at all different. The school feels solid enough to take rain, wind, and even an earthquake," Principal Denise E. Hendrix of Chavez Elementary said. "I've been in Corona schools since 1961, and this feels great. It's beautifully designed, with all the amenities of a permanent school. And because it was built so fast, it really helped ease overcrowding" in neighboring elementary schools.

In addition to building modulars and modular schools, Aurora will soon be building two-story relocatables in the southern half of the state.

Asked if and when California's modular-classroom boom may slow down, company President Mike Henning said that depends on the state.

"School construction funding in California is not adequate to deal with the growth," so the portable-classroom industry, which can build schools quickly and cheaply, thrives, he said. "We're benefiting by the fact that the system [of funding schools] in this state is broken."

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