Improvements are on the way for Mountain View Whisman School District's elementary schools, as Measure G school bond construction kicks into high gear. But for some teachers at Bubb Elementary, it can't come fast enough.
Bubb teachers complained to the school board last month, saying that the portable classrooms at the school have fallen into a state of disrepair. Leaky roofs, faulty heating and broken air conditioning, strange smells and rat droppings are among some of the chronic problems that teachers have reported at the portables located in the back of the school campus.
Speaking on behalf of four teachers, Bubb teacher Barbara Scott told the board at the Nov. 5 meeting that these portables have been around and in use for 20 years, and have recently started to fall apart. Using an instrument to measure sound in her classroom, Scott said she measured 60 decibels in her empty classroom with the air conditioning running -- well above the maximum 45 decibels advised by the California Air Resources Board. Other teachers reported that their air conditioning had broken in the hot weather, allowing the temperatures in the classrooms to reach over 80 degrees.
While the district is in the midst of planning for school construction using Measure G funds, Scott urged the board to start thinking about more immediate solutions.
"Not only do we ask that you consider these concerns as you make your budget decisions, but as a heavy El Nino approaches this winter, something needs to be done now," Scott wrote in an email to the board.
At the meeting, district staff appeared to be surprised by the comments. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph insisted that there are "no issues whatsoever" in the classrooms, and that there are no outstanding maintenance problems that remain unaddressed. While it's not clear why teachers would report on issues that have already been solved, Rudolph said, it's possible the teachers are trying to highlight "old issues."
Teachers might also be airing their grievances in order to make a case for the portables to be replaced with site-built classrooms during later phases of Measure G construction, Rudolph said.
"(Scott) was just trying to express a sentiment to the board, and as a citizen she's more than willing to do that," Rudolph said. "Through our system, we did not see any of those issues."
Bubb principal Cyndee Nguyen also said she believes the intent of the complaints was to "encourage the board to move forward with construction."
However, some of the teachers' testimony seemed to dispute that, citing problems that occurred just a few days prior to the Nov. 5 meeting.
However, when contacted by the Voice, Scott declined to respond to the comments by district administrators, and other teachers working in Bubb portables did not respond to the Voice's request for a reaction to Rudolph's assertions. The school's PTA leadership also did not respond to the Voice's requests for comment.
Measure G construction plans for Bubb are still murky. The board agreed to the District Facilities Committee recommendations earlier this year, which called for classroom modernization at all the schools. But the recommendations fell short of requiring 24 permanent, or "site built" classrooms at all the schools, which would eliminate the need for portables, citing budget constraints.
Some of the portables on the campus were built prior to 1995, and are "prone to substantial deterioration," according to the district's School Facilities Improvement Plan.
Construction at Bubb is expected to begin in the summer of 2017 and continue through the winter break. The plan would remove most, if not all, of the portables and repurpose existing space in the multi-use room for special education classrooms, according to school construction manager Todd Lee.
Litany of complaints
Several letters sent to the board by Bubb teachers say that the portable classrooms are a source of chronic issues that have caused problems as recently as last month. Bubb teacher Emily Campion wrote that in the past, she's managed to cope with the lack of storage space and emergency exits that comes with teaching in a portable. But lately, things have been challenging.
Over the last four months, she went without a functioning projector and document camera to teach students, and was relegated to using a whiteboard and marker for her lessons. In an email, she explained that maintenance staff were "flummoxed" as to why the wiring in the classroom didn't work.
The roof on the portable has multiple leaks "in even the slightest rainstorm," Campion said, and she recalled that on Nov. 2, an entire panel of the ceiling had leaked all over the electronics in the classroom, forcing her to relocate students and unplug everything.
"I understand resources need to be allocated by where the need is greatest, but what exactly needs to happen in my classroom for it be deemed of great need? Do I need the roof to actually fall on a student's head?" Campion wrote.
In another email, teacher Laurel Shephard explained that teachers are working at a huge disadvantage when they have to teach in a portable. They consistently have to worry about leaks when it rains, and have to cross their fingers that the air conditioning continues to work when it gets hot outside. When maintenance staff does come in to make repairs, it's often a disruptive experience as they walk on the roof and stick ladders in the middle of the room during class time.
Teacher Shana Siegel said in an email that when it rains outside, it rains inside her classroom as well, and that water had dripped onto her students on Monday, Nov. 2. She said there's a "distinct smell of mold" in the classroom, and that many of her special education students -- several of whom have Down's syndrome and are more susceptible to catching colds -- are affected.
When the weather heats up, other problems crop up. Siegel recalled her classroom's air conditioning breaking, forcing her and her students to go without it for over a week. As a Band-Aid fix, maintenance staff brought in a small, portable air conditioning unit, she said, "which brought the temperature in my classroom down to the low 80s during the heat wave we were experiencing at the time."
According to a 2004 report by the state Air Resources Board and Department of Health Services, portable classrooms tend to have an array of environmental problems. Noisy heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems tend to ratchet up the noise level in excess of 55 decibels. And the alternative -- turning off on the noise-making equipment -- can prompt serious ventilation problems in the classroom by cutting off outdoor air circulation into the room.
Musty odors, water stains and excess wall moisture are a persistent problem in many portable classrooms, according to the report, and are "often attributable to inadequate maintenance."