COLUMBIA — When Liberty Public Schools tried to persuade taxpayers to pass a bond issue to add more buildings, it showed them aerial photos of clusters of trailers outside Columbia’s schools.
Voters in that Kansas City-area district rejected the bond proposal on Nov. 8, spokesman Dallas Ackerman said. He added that soon, the Liberty district might be heading the same way as Columbia Public Schools.
“We’re heading down the road where if we don’t do something soon, we might be using more modular units,” Ackerman said.
Right now, the Columbia district owns 153 trailers, which are spread out among 22 school sites. As it goes through with its plans to reduce the need for them, district leaders acknowledge selling them off won’t be easy.
“There’s not much of a demand or market for them,” Deputy Superintendent Nick Boren said. “In all honesty, we’ll be lucky to get rid of them without having to pay.”
Boren confirmed the district spends $245,000 each year on heating and cooling its trailers, with $10,000 in additional maintenance costs. Removing all of them would save the district $255,000 per year.
Boren said the district isn’t sure how many trailers will be phased out yet.
The addition of Battle High School and the realignment of school boundaries will reduce the need for many of the trailers at Hickman High School and the current middle and junior high schools.
His uncertainty stems from the fact that when Battle opens in August 2013, it will not have a senior class. Most of the students in grade 12 who are living within its boundaries will be at Hickman, so the school might still have a need for its mobile classrooms until the next year. Rock Bridge High School doesn't have trailers.
Boren said the district won’t be able to begin phasing out elementary school trailers until 2015, when it plans to build a new elementary school.
To further reduce the need for trailers are elementary schools, the district will have to increase its bonding capacity to build more elementary schools. It won’t be legally allowed to do this until November 2014, Superintendent Chris Belcher said.
“The secondary cycle is in place,” Belcher said. “What I’m concerned about is the elementary cycle.”
Belcher said he’s seen this problem before in the 1980s when he taught science classes at Blue Springs High School, near Kansas City. He said the problem with the trailers is not their use as instructional space but their lack of bathrooms and the extra costs that go into maintaining them.
Mobile classrooms cost 40 percent more than brick-and-mortar buildings in utilities and maintenance, Belcher said.
Other districts in Missouri have had already run into the problem of not finding buyers.
Will Cumberford was also a science teacher at Blue Springs High School who taught classes next door to Belcher’s. He’s now the director of buildings and grounds for Blue Springs Schools, and he said his district has attempted to sell one trailer on an online auction site with frustrating results.
“It has been literally sold twice in the last roughly four or five months,” Cumberford said. “Both times the deals have fallen through.”
Cumberford said the Blue Springs’ district had tried to persuade construction contractors to consider using the trailer as an on-site headquarters and hunters to think of it as a possible hunting lodge. Neither strategy worked.
“We could end up potentially taking a bulldozer to it,” Cumberford said.
He said the price of the unit itself isn’t what turns potential buyers away, but the costs in uprooting and hauling it from the site.
If the Columbia district can’t find someone to buy the trailers, it could possibly put the trailers in surplus property storage, Belcher said. He said the district’s reliance on trailers is a result of not being able to build fast enough to keep an increasing number of students in permanent buildings.
“A lot of the issue is the lack of legislators to improve bonding capacity to keep up with growth,” he said.