COLUMBIA — One quarter of Columbia's public school children spend their days in a trailer.
These students are taught in temporary classrooms — or mobile shacks, as one teacher playfully called them — that the district depends on to compensate for inadequate space inside school buildings.
Superintendent Chris Belcher thinks Columbia can do better.
“I would like for one of my legacies to be that I came in and got rid of the trailers,” Belcher said last month.
He said they are inconvenient for students in harsh weather and are targets of vandalism. They also cause disruptions in learning when a child must walk to another building to use the bathroom.
This year, 3,675 students — 25 percent of the school population — are assigned to trailers in Columbia.
Over the last 30 years, the school district has added 153 trailers to keep up with population growth of 110-120 new students annually. Ninety trailers are needed at the elementary level, 56 in the middle schools and seven at Hickman High School.
Belcher’s primary concern is what it costs to maintain them.
“My complaint is that they’re 30 percent more expensive than a brick-and-mortar building,” he said. “So over a 10-year period, we’re just throwing our money away.”
Money that could be channeled into programs, he said.
Heating and cooling costs for all trailers each year is $245,000, with an additional $10,000 for yearly maintenance, Deputy Superintendent Nick Boren said.
He estimates the district would save $255,000 a year if trailers were removed.
Belcher has focused his attention on the heart of the problem: elementary schools.
To eliminate trailers at these schools would require a two-part strategy: expanding older schools and building new ones.
“We’ve looked at every one of our elementary schools, and only four of them are candidates for expansion,” Belcher said.
“But our numbers show that we need the equivalent of five elementary buildings by 2015 in order to get out of the trailers and manage student growth."
Cedar Ridge Elementary School, 1100 S. Roseta Ave., is one school in Columbia that relies on trailers to accommodate its students.
The school was originally designed for 100 students, but adding trailers over the years has allowed it to hold 275.
“Trailers are a part of who we are here,” Cedar Ridge Principal Angie Beutenmiller said. “They’re what we’ve always done.”
The notion of abolishing them provokes mixed response among Cedar Ridge teachers.
“I don’t like them. I feel like we’re disconnected from what goes on in the actual school building,” said teacher Stephanie LeBlanc, who works with 10 special-education students. “I go a day, sometimes two days without seeing the people I work with. When you’re out here, you miss out on all the fun.”
LeBlanc shares her 25-by-45-foot trailer with another special-education teacher, Christy Johnson, who offers a different perspective.
“I enjoy them. It’s your own little world out here,” Johnson said. “There’s a certain autonomy to them, knowing you can laugh with the door open, or read on the steps when it’s nice outside. It’s peaceful.”
LeBlanc isn’t convinced.
“It’s colder out here; it’s hotter out here,” she teases Johnson. “My vote stays the same.”
The two do agree that the solution needs to be in the best interest of students.
Beutenmiller said she trusts that whatever Belcher and his staff are doing is for the right reasons.
“I like the way they think. I know they care about what they’re doing with kids,” Beutenmiller said. “I trust that whatever they’re doing is going to make our district even better.”
At Derby Ridge Elementary School, 4000 Derby Ridge Drive, Principal Tina Windett didn't classify trailers as an immediate problem. But she said it would be nice to get to a point where Columbia relies on them less.
“Our kids seem to like them, and most teachers don’t mind them either. But what concerns me are the safety and security issues,” Windett said. “If we have a lockdown, I feel much more comfortable with everyone in the building. There’s a level of discomfort for me there.”
Belcher said he would like to present a rough draft of a plan to the Columbia School Board early next fall.
"This is a very complicated model," he said. "You have to project what your growth number is going to be, where the growth is going to occur, and take a hard look at your bond budget."
Boren said it cost the district $18.8 million to build Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School, Columbia's newest. To have five additional, fully functional elementary schools by 2015 would cost about $86.8 million, or roughly $17.4 million per building, assuming 7 percent inflation.
To seek voter approval for such projects would require a segmented approach and building a few schools at a time, Belcher suggested. He does propose getting rid of trailers at the secondary schools when the new high school opens in 2013.
Other U.S. school districts have been successful in their efforts to eliminate trailers, but it required shrewd planning.
In 2003, Dacula, Ga., near Atlanta, went through a period of rapid growth and needed 104 trailers to house 1,500 students. Not a single one is being used today.
Building a new middle school in 2004 gave the district enough relief to remove them.
“We built another middle school, and half our kids went over there so we didn’t need them anymore,” Dacula secretary Mary Byers said. “We were also adding on a little to our own building at that time which helped too."
Belcher seems confident it can be done in Columbia, too.
"It's going to take a lot, but we can do it," he said. “Now is the time to correct this problem."