KOLD INVESTIGATES: Portable classroom crisis for Tucson Unified

Published: Dec. 23, 2019 at 5:05 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Every day, hundreds of students in Tucson’s largest school district file into portable buildings for class.

The KOLD Investigates Team looked into the condition of every portable across the Tucson Unified School District to see what kind of environment students are learning in.

“You can smell it in here. The mold and the rot is bringing down the wall,” said Maldonado Elementary School Principal Robbie Ramirez as she unlocked the door to one the campus’ portable buildings.

Maldonado has five portable buildings, but Ramirez said none of them are being used.

“Absolutely not. Because of the condition, we don’t have our students anywhere near the portables,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said years ago, the portables served as classrooms, but they no longer need the additional space.

In the 2013-2014 school year, Maldonado’s enrollment was 420 students.

This year, enrollment is down to 232.

According to the district’s projections, that number will continue to drop.

Without a real need for the extra space and without regular maintenance, the portables have become safety hazards and targets for vandalism.

“There’s a lot of exterior damage in addition to what’s inside the buildings. They have had to put boards across the doors because we’ve had people come in and painted on walls. We’ve had people get into the ceilings and ripping out wires,” Ramirez said.

The KOLD Investigates Team obtained the district’s Portable Readiness Audit performed earlier this year by TUSD’s Operations Department.

The audit ranks the condition of all 242 portables across the district. You can read the audit below.

The department ranked each buildings’s roofing, exterior, interior, doors, ramps and air conditioning on a scale of one to five with one being the worst.

The majority of the portables on Maldonado’s campus scored a one or two in each category.

The Operations Department recommended the demolition of all five portables.

Shortly after KOLD visited to the school, that is exactly what happened. TUSD said the demolition project cost $34,500.

While the portables at Maldonado were not needed, there are a number of portables across the district that are used every day as classrooms, activity spaces, storage and more.

The KOLD Investigates team looked specifically at portables currently being used as classrooms.

We averaged their scores in each category (roofing, exterior, interior, doors, ramps, A/C) to determine which portables were in the worst condition.

Magee Middle, Rincon High and Whitmore Elementary tied for the fourth lowest scores with an average of 2.3.

Booth and White each had portable classrooms that earned a 2.16.

The scores continued to drop with Sewell coming in at 1.83.

The worst portable classroom in the district is at Pistor Middle with a score of 1.5.

“They are extremely old. It’s maybe not what you would want your child’s environment to look like,” said Pistor Middle Principal Elizabeth Rivera-Russel.

Rivera-Russel said Pistor’s enrollment numbers exceed their classroom space in the main building, so they need the extra space.

“There are about 365 students in the sixth grade that are using these portables every day for their classroom environment,” Rivera-Russel said.

She said the classrooms require constant maintenance.

She says leaking roofs are especially bad during monsoon.

“We do get rodents leaving their marks in the classrooms as well. There’s holes underneath the building and rotting wood, so they are going to get in,” Rivera-Russel said.

For now, she said the staff will continue to make due with what they have.

“It’s just a temporary fix for a long-term problem. We need actual classrooms and actual buildings. We are hoping in time, our students will get the type of classrooms they deserve,” Rivera-Russell said.

In November 2017, voters rejected TUSD’s $180 million bond proposal to address the district’s critical needs.

The district said there are no other bond proposals in the works at this time.

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