Ninety-seven portable classrooms once housed as many as 3,000 Anoka-Hennepin students, with enough combined square footage for a sixth high school in the district.

Now, Anoka-Hennepin is hauling away nearly half of those temporary, trailer classrooms that served all grades as it embarks on its biggest construction program in a decade, to handle the arrival of free all-day kindergarten in fall 2014. It’s spending $34 million to add about 60 new classrooms at six of its elementary schools.

The Anoka-Hennepin construction is perhaps the most extensive since the 2013 Legislature gave districts the option of offering free all-day kindergarten with the state covering operating costs. But others are also building, propelled at least in part by the coming kindergarten growth. St. Louis Park will spend $15 million to add 10 classrooms, some for all-day kindergarten, and a cafeteria at three elementary schools. Hopkins School officials bought a building that neighbors an elementary school to add classrooms.

Anoka-Hennepin is a bit unusual in that it isn’t borrowing to finance the additions, which total 60,000 square feet. The district is using money from a maintenance fund, a capital fund and savings from the cutback in portable-classroom rentals, which at one time topped out at $4.5 million a year.

“We are able to add permanent, really nice space for the students without a negative impact on taxpayers,” said Chuck Holden, the district’s chief operations officer. “We know the permanent additions are a better space than the portable classrooms.”

Not a five-year blip

The construction also reflects a shift in approach to dealing with changing enrollment.

Anoka-Hennepin used portables to give it flexibility with fluctuating numbers. The district grew from 31,000 students in grades K-12 in 1990 to 40,000 by 2004 but is now declining slightly. It actually closed six elementary schools and one middle school in 2009, selling off those buildings.

With the addition of all-day kindergarten, officials feel comfortable spending millions on permanent classrooms. They also say that building additions rather than entire new schools will save on administrative, cafeteria and other operational costs, which total $500,000 a year for an elementary school.

“As we look out, we really believe we are going to need that space long term,” said school board chairman Tom Heidemann. “We see this is not as a five- or 10-year blip.”

Construction at all six schools starts this spring and is scheduled to be done by Aug. 15.

“It’s really going to be tight. We were hoping to start by March 15,” Holden said. “This winter’s deep freeze has pushed that date out.”

Preference for permanence

District officials acknowledge that portables pose challenges for teachers and students. Many don’t have bathrooms and often don’t have phone lines. Some are attached to schools, but others require students to walk outside.

They can make students and teachers feel isolated from the rest of the school community. Art, music and other specialty courses are sometimes housed in portables to avoid one group of students spending the entire day outside the brick-and-mortar building.

And the portables don’t look great. City officials in the district have groused when portables arrive, pointing out that they don’t usually fit a neighborhood’s architecture or aesthetics.

Franklin Elementary in Anoka will lose its two portables this year but will gain about a 10,000-square-foot addition that includes eight new classrooms. Principal Brian Erlandson said he’s thrilled to get new permanent space. “Portables are a nice temporary measure to take if you have a growing population. Long range, it’s not the best,” he said.

He also said it’s time to add on permanent space.

“I am a part of the community as well. It’s just part of what we need to do. Anoka-Hennepin has been fiscally conservative and thinking about money and long-term projections.”

Sand Creek Elementary in Coon Rapids will get a 12,000-square-foot addition.

“I am very excited. We have had space issues,” said Principal Paul Anderson. “… We were all scrambling with how we were going to keep kindergartners here all day with no space.”

Even with the addition, Anderson has asked to keep the portables, too. The district has agreed.

Still, he knows the portables are less than ideal. They’re often the target of vandalism — graffiti and broken windows.

Sand Creek Art Teacher Alice Johnson teaches in the portables part of the time, sharing space with the music teacher, and going from classroom to classroom with her supplies on her cart the rest of the time. She’s not crazy about portables, but she’s getting by — and dreaming of the days ahead.

“Next year. … That is the carrot on the end of the stick,” Johnson said. “It will be wonderful.”