CHRISTIANSBURG — The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 this week to provide $200,000 toward a plan to install a four-classroom modular unit at Blacksburg’s Harding Avenue Elementary School.
Montgomery County Public Schools has long placed detached classroom structures at schools where enrollment exceeds the main building’s capacity.
Harding has a capacity of 242, but an enrollment of 347, according to MCPS figures.
The $200,000 comes out of a school capital fund that is fed by revenue generated from a fraction of the county’s 89-cent real estate tax rate. The money supervisors approved will specifically cover items such as utilities, wiring the unit to the fire alarm and security system and installing ramps and steps.
MCPS plans to dip into its already approved operating budget to cover either the leasing or purchase of the unit.
Assistant Superintendent Tommy Kranz said on Monday that the decision on whether to lease or buy the unit rests with Superintendent Mark Miear. Kranz, however, presented supervisors with a breakdown of the costs to either lease or buy a unit.
The annual rate to lease the unit will be $68,355, according to figures. Buying the unit now will cost $277,955.
MCPS expects to employ the unit for at least eight to 10 years.
The use of trailers — and detached classroom units in general — has stirred debate due to the little support the structures have received from the community at large and both school and county officials.
The schools, however, have been unable so far to bring an end to the use of trailers due to a variety of challenges.
Those challenges include county and school officials’ prioritization of other school capital needs and Montgomery County’s rapid growth.
The Harding plan hasn’t been free of debate.
The addition of a modular unit at Harding — particularly the possibility that the structure could be there for at least a decade — appears to run counter to an effort to reduce the use of trailers at schools, said Supervisor Chris Tuck, who cast the lone vote against providing the $200,000.
“I have stated then and now that I don’t want to see kids in mobile units,” Tuck said in an interview before this past Monday’s vote. “I don’t care if they’re in Christiansburg, Blacksburg, Auburn or Shawsville. This is what I didn’t want.”
Tuck questioned whether the school district’s request qualified as a capital need due to his observation that the modular unit wouldn’t provide a permanent fix to Harding’s overcrowding issue.
Tuck also said the Harding issue is one reason he debated school officials earlier this year on whether or not the county should have allocated additional money, initially intended for school capital needs, to school operations.
School board member Connie Froggatt took issue with Tuck’s questioning of the Harding unit being a capital need.
The Harding unit is unlike typical trailers in that, in addition to four classrooms, it includes bathrooms, hallways, a water fountain and storage, Froggatt said. The unit will also be supplied with the same utilities as a school building, she said.
Froggatt also said several schools in the Christiansburg strand either have or had used trailers for more than a decade.
Froggatt described the treatment of existing trailers and the upcoming Harding unit as “anything other than capital is demeaning and insulting” to the teachers and students who have used them.
“The intent of the capital fund is to provide the buildings and equipment with which our students will be educated, and this modular unit will do exactly that,” Froggatt wrote in an email to supervisors earlier this month.
While some supervisors echoed some of Tuck’s concerns, they said they see few other options for addressing the overcrowding issue at Harding.
“I don’t personally see a reasonable alternative solution for the children,” supervisors Vice Chairwoman April DeMotts said.
She said she hopes the school district purchases the Harding unit due to that option looking like the more cost-effective choice.