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Too many students in portables: PCs

Opposition says province has 525 temporary classrooms

Kelvin Goertzen says portable huts and trailers are not an ideal environment for learning.

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Kelvin Goertzen says portable huts and trailers are not an ideal environment for learning. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Portable classrooms ring Leila North School.

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Portable classrooms ring Leila North School. (PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS )

There are enough schoolchildren studying in temporary classrooms in Manitoba to populate a small city.

Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives, citing statistics compiled from dozens of freedom of information requests, said Tuesday there are 525 portable classrooms in the province. At 25 students per class, the total -- 13,125 -- would rival the population of Steinbach, Manitoba's third-largest city.

The Selinger government, however, is challenging that number. Education officials say their records show only 361 portable units are in use, providing space for 8,300 to 9,000 kids to park their backpacks. That's roughly equivalent to the population of Dauphin.

No matter which city you pick, it's a lot of kids.

PC education critic Kelvin Goertzen said portable huts and trailers are not an ideal environment for learning. He said the high number in use is symbolic of a government that isn't planning and preparing for the educational needs of the future.

The situation is expected to be exacerbated by a government push to implement a cap on class sizes in kindergarten through Grade 3. By 2017, the province wants to limit classes in these grades to 20 students. The initiative will require 240 more teachers and presumably as many classrooms.

"It's one thing to say, well, we're going to have lower class sizes and more teachers. And both of those things in their own way can have value. But where are you going to teach them? You've got to have classrooms," Goertzen said.

According to figures compiled by the Conservatives, the portable classrooms are adjacent to 156 schools across the province. Data compiled at the end of 2012 showed the Winnipeg School Division had 70 temporary classrooms, Pembina Trails had 64 and Hanover School Division had 52.

Gerald Farthing, the province's deputy education minister, rejected the notion that students in portable classrooms were getting a second-class education.

"I've been in a lot of schools. I've been in a lot of portables -- modular classrooms as we call them. Nobody has talked to me about this being a quality of education issue," he said.

Farthing allowed that there is some inconvenience for students in temporary classrooms, especially in winter, when trips to the library or the bathroom mean a quick dash out into the cold.

But he said newer modular units are the size of a regular classroom, are bright, have good shelving and meet all building codes.

"What we prefer to do is to build new schools and to add on to schools, but where that's not possible, for some temporary period of time, we will move a portable in," he said.

A spokesman for the Progressive Conservatives said late Tuesday the party stood by its numbers.

Earlier in the day, Goertzen, who represents the constituency of Steinbach, said new portables "pop up like daisies" every spring in his community in preparation for the next fall.

"Even though we have a couple of new schools, none of those huts are coming down because it took so long to get the schools built that we still need all of the huts," he said.

Paul Olson, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, said while the quality of portables can be "extremely good," it's always preferable for students and teachers to be part of the main school.

Disadvantages for students can include reduced access to books, computers and art supplies as well as washrooms. For teachers, it involves more hauling of materials and equipment back and forth between the portables and the main building, and it can lead to a feeling of isolation from colleagues.

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