Portable classroom buildings are noisy.

They reverberate when you walk across them. They let in sounds from outside their walls. They have a hollow echo-like quality.

Andrew Heinemann knows. He used to teach in one. That's why the Harelson Elementary School principal is eagerly awaiting the completion of a permanent building that will replace two of the school's portables.

"A portable building should be temporary," he said. "These were here for numerous years."

The school's new building, which started going up in May, is being built with Students FIRST funds. Heinemann said he hopes to have students inside it immediately after Christmas break.

Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today) was signed into Arizona law by Gov. Jane Hull in 1998. Since then, it has awarded $1.37 billion to schools for building projects and improvements.

Now, Amphitheater Public Schools is getting its first buildings out of the deal. At a price of $1.4 million to the state, permanent classrooms are replacing portable ones at Lulu Walker, Harelson and Nash elementary schools and Cross Middle School.

Their expected completion date is in November.

Students FIRST was created after Arizona's system for funding school building projects was declared unconstitutional in 1994 in the case of Roosevelt Elementary School District No. 66 vs. Bishop.

The system had relied in part on the state's secondary property tax, which depends on the wealth of a school district. A lack of wealth in some communities meant that many poorer students had buildings and equipment inferior to that of children in wealthier areas.

In 1996, the Arizona Superior Court told the state it had two years to come up with a constitutional system of paying for school buildings, or its public schools could close.

In 1999, a School Facilities Board, not part of the Arizona Department of Education, created minimum school facility guidelines and began awarding Students FIRST money to schools that didn't meet them.

In July of last year, Marana Unified School District received $2.8 million for four building replacement projects.

Kathy Davis, a special education teacher at Amphitheater Middle School, said she is delighted to know that some Amphi portables, which are about 20 or 25 years old, are going down next.

"We will be really glad to get into a regular building like regular kids," she said.

Although the portable she is in will disappear soon because of Students FIRST, her future permanent classroom actually will be built with school district money.

That's because the School Facilities Board is removing portable classrooms from Amphitheater Middle School and, in return, putting up a permanent building at Cross Middle School.

That's allowed, as long as the replacement building goes to another of the district's schools that serves the same age group - in this case middle school students.

Since Cross Middle School has land around it that is fit for a major housing development in the future, the school likely will need additional space soon, said Doug Aho, district executive manager of operational support.

"We try and get the buildings where we feel there's going to be the biggest impact for kids," Aho said.

For Davis, her students, and others in portables, the school district is remodeling large shop classrooms so they can serve as smaller permanent classrooms.

Davis's students will have ready access to indoor amenities, such as water fountains and bathrooms, and Davis said she will benefit from her close proximity to other teachers.

"Teachers, especially special ed teachers, need access to each other," she said.

Removal of the portables will solve accessibility issues as well.

When an eighth grader who uses a wheelchair joined Davis' class a few weeks into a quarter, he couldn't get into her portable classroom.

Luckily, another room with a ramp stood vacant. The whole class moved to that room.

The district's other Students FIRST money recipients are getting buildings on their property to replace their portable classrooms.

Lulu Walker Elementary School is getting one building with two classrooms to replace portables that are about 15 years old, Aho said. Harelson Elementary School's one building with four classrooms will replace portables about 12 to 15 years old. Nash Elementary School's one building with two classrooms will replace portables about 10 years old. Each classroom is 900 to 960 square feet.

Aho said the more efficient and stable permanent buildings will cut down on costs that the district now spends maintaining them.

"At what point in time do you say we're putting more money in these than they are worth?" Aho said.

He said the buildings were put up as temporary fixtures as schools grew, but then school budgets tightened, and they remained.

"The word 'portable' is for a reason," he said. "I don't think anyone thought of keeping portables for life."

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