I want you to take a long hard look at these photos. Where do you think they were taken? A refugee camp in Syria? The county animal control facility? A public housing project? A minimum security prison? Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo?
This is actually the premier high-end public high school in Quartz Hill, California. Families move to Quartz Hill specifically because of the quality of the schools. Yet the physical building stock is composed of a few core brick and mortar structures and a flotilla of portable “temporary” glue box classrooms. This isn’t an impoverished community. In fact, Quartz Hill is an area where the slightly better off families migrate to when they feel that older neighborhoods in the region are beginning to decline. So why does the most desirable public school in this respectable outer suburb look like an insecticide factory in a ghetto?
Here’s another thing that puzzled me. Quartz Hill High is fitted with a spectacular number of photovoltaic panels that were clearly installed at some expense. I’m a big fan of renewable clean solar energy and it makes perfect sense to cover parking lots and fallow land with panels in a desert environment. But if the school can manage the panels, why the cheap ass glue box classrooms?
At first I thought this was an anomaly. Perhaps the high school was in the middle of a capital improvement process and the temporary classrooms were a stop gap while new permanent buildings were constructed. That seemed reasonable. So I drove over to Quartz Hill Elementary and there were more portable buildings out in the parking lot supplementing the original 1950’s brick classrooms. There were also some impressive solar arrays.
Then I thought this must be a situation that’s unique to Quartz Hill. So I drove over to the neighboring municipality of Lancaster. This is Lancaster High. Same glue boxes, same solar panels. At this point I began to think this was some kind of county-wide situation.
Here’s a well respected private Christian high school in the same neighborhood. Notice the large suburban homes and backyard swimming pools next door to the school. This is not a poor area. Yet half the buildings are glue boxes. The one permanent building looks like a plumbing supply warehouse, but at least it isn’t made of compressed dust. Also notice the solar panel arrays in the parking lot just like the public schools.
Antelope Valley Christian School, Desert Christian School, and Westside Christian School all have substantial numbers of glue boxes. In fact many of these portable temporary structures are installed in clusters and are then covered with a single roof membrane and landscaped as if they were a single building. This looks an awful lot like a permanent situation.
Now I don’t want anyone here misinterpreting my concern. I’m not objecting to either the glue boxes or the solar arrays per se. Abraham Lincoln taught himself to read in a log cabin in the Kentucky woods with no more equipment than the family bible. The most important part of any school is the relationship between the parents, students, and teachers. If you get that right the buildings are irrelevant. But I still have to ask… In a prosperous place where people obviously take great pride in their private homes and cars and clearly care enough to send their children to the best possible schools why is the public realm so miserable?
The situation was sufficiently vexing that I approached a local public official and asked him what was up with the portable classrooms. He drew a deep breath. First, there are unending county, state, and federal regulations. The bureaucratic process is exhausting and hideously expensive. Renting a glue box that already conforms to all the particulars is cheap and easy and no up-front money or loan is required.
Second, there’s a hard state-wide cap on property taxes in California (see Proposition 13 here) that fund the public schools. The little bit of tax revenue that does come in is sent directly to the county which then reallocates the funds back to various school districts. That already insufficient money comes with so many strings that the schools are dependent on other intra-governmental grants and supplemental payments from the state and feds. There’s basically no money to do anything other than feed the bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, public school teachers are among the lowest paid professionals in the country. However, there tends to be a popular belief among taxpayers that teachers are paid too much, have overly generous pension and health care provisions, and don’t work a full day or a full year. (Insert your preferred conservative or liberal political diatribe here.) But once you’re done ranting look at your local public school and decide for yourself if it looks gold plated or impoverished. Then ask yourself if you’d be willing to work at that pay level and under those conditions if you had other options.
I asked about the private schools. It turns out that the portable classroom industry is now so well established that no other building type can compete on price or convenience. The glue boxes are the no-brainer choice. There are also many second hand scratch-and-dent units on the market at very attractive prices. A little paint, some tar patches, and a new air conditioning compressor usually does the trick when budgets are tight.
Then I asked about the solar panels. That was actually easier to explain. The local utility company and various private solar installers approach the schools (both public and private) and roll out a no-money-down plan that provides the schools with power than’s less expensive than what they were paying for in conventional grid power. The schools don’t own the solar arrays. Just like the portable classrooms they just occupy space on the school property. I now understand why things are the way they are. I just don’t see how the process will ever produce anything other than a legacy of rotting plywood boxes.