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Legislators set goal to retire aged portables

Legislators want to see all of the state's oldest portable classrooms cleared away from Florida's schools in the next five years.

Lawmakers have agreed to a goal of removing by the year 2003 all portables that are more than 20 years old. They also want to remove half the portables from any school that houses more students than it was built to hold.

The ambitious goal is part of a $2.7-billion school construction plan agreed upon Thursday night by Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Daniel Webster, which next goes to the full Legislature for approval.

The plan also rewrites a controversial law passed last spring that counted each portable classroom equal to three-fourths of a permanent classroom in determining school districts' need for more schools.

The goal of getting rid of portables is not a requirement or a mandate. But it does make clear the sentiment against the aging and decrepit structures that have become the symbol of the state's crowded schools.

Dumping them all will be no easy task. Roughly 5,000 of the state's 22,000 portables _ or nearly one-quarter _ are more than 20 years old.

The plan drew a mixed response from school officials. The goal assumes that districts will be able to replace portables with new classroom space. But many districts are growing so fast they need to add portables and permanent classroom space.

"It's a great goal, but it's not adding classroom space," said Mike Bookman, assistant superintendent for the Hillsborough County schools. "I'd love to replace the old portables, but how do I do that and still accommodate growth and renovate my old schools?"

Still, legislative leaders insisted it's a worthy goal.

"If you've got old and dilapidated portables, get rid of them," said House Majority Leader Jim King of Jacksonville.

The goal goes hand in hand with revised rules for counting portable classrooms when calculating a district's overall need for space. The proposal counts portables equal to permanent classrooms, unless they:

Are more than 20 years old;

Are at schools that have 120 percent of their student capacity;

Fail to meet safety standards to be set by the state education commissioner;

Are scheduled to be replaced within four years.

Calculating districts' need for space became a subplot to the money negotiations this week. After Webster and Jennings shook hands on their deal Thursday, many lawmakers said even they did not understand what the plan said about portables.

"I don't know what they did with it," said Rep. Bill Andrews, R-Delray Beach. "It shouldn't be an issue."

But he and many legislators agreed on the larger focus of the school construction plan and the goal of ridding campuses of portables.

"We're saying, "Look, we'd love to see you get rid of more and more of your portables,' " said Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "The state is committed to giving you more money. We want to see your commitment to getting rid of some of your portables."

Though the goal carries no penalties for non-compliance, the state will be keeping an eye on school districts' progress toward the goal every year.

Even if school districts follow the goal to the fullest, it will not mean the end of portable classrooms in Florida. But it could mean that vast fields of portables are diminished in size, and that portables are used as they were intended.

"Portables do serve some appropriate purposes," said April Herrle, spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles. "They should be used as temporary solutions _ not permanent fixtures. The governor supports any effort to move kids out of portables and into permanent classrooms."