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The Broward County School Board unanimously approved an $8.8 million request to build portables for students at Rickards Middle School after the ceiling in their media center collapsed in March.

The plan includes 30 portables for students of all grade levels to use as the Oakland Park school is under construction. It would be paid for by capital reserves.

“I know that the community is very, very thankful,” said Sarah Leonardi, a school board member whose district covers Oakland Park. “I am so, so thankful for your willingness to invest in this community.”

On Tuesday, the board approved requests to demolish the damaged building and funding to renovate Buildings 2 and 5 for students to use but postponed the big-ticket decision for Thursday.

The ceiling of the media center collapsed back in March; it was unoccupied at the time so there were no major injuries. A dozen students and staffers were taken to hospitals to treat anxieties and headaches. Ever since, students attended school at Broward College or virtually. Virtual school was not given as an option by the state as students return to in-person classes in August.

Staff broke down the cost to the board. Of the $8.8 million, roughly $3 million would go towards the portables, $4 million would be to the electrical and engineering contractor, $1 million for IT, and the remaining for canopies, ramps, design and management, and contingency funds.

“The modulars are really the cheapest part of the whole thing,” said Frank Girardi, executive director of capital programs.

Staff told the board that while the county owns portables, “nearly all are ineligible for relocation” due to changes in the building code since they were built.

A second proposal that would only cost $6.8 million was presented, but it would mean that eighth-graders would not return to campus when the portables are completed and would stay at Northeast High School. Other proposals that were shared with parents at a community meeting in June included splitting up each grade level at different schools, sending all students to Pines Middle School in Pembroke Pines, and having them at temporary schools and relocating to campus when the portables are complete.

“What happened to them was traumatic,” said school board member Debra Hixon. “I think the fair thing to do is to keep them together. I don’t even like putting eighth-graders at Northeast; I think they need to stay together.”

The students will be separated for a period of time, though, as work to get Buildings 2 and 5 would take until the end of September. With the approved request, all students would be able to return to campus after Winter Break when the portables are complete.

“We have basically taken away middle school from these students,” said board member Donna Korn. “This isn't a financial decision. These are not business offices, these are not industrial warehouses, these are classrooms.”

Girardi said the likelihood of moving students into portables after Winter Break was “very good” and that he was “comfortable” having Sept. 27 as the final date for the two renovated buildings to be complete.

Leonardi, who represents the district covering Rickards Middle School, shared thoughts from parents and teachers such as the negative impact separating students would have on enrollment, teachers who teach multiple grade levels having to drive to multiple schools in a day, and working parents navigating having their children at different schools.

Raymond Adderly, a student advisor for the board, said, “Rickards is a majority Black and Brown school that is full of minorities and outside of that, a majority of the students there are on free and reduced lunch. We aren’t doing them any favors if we make them split between three different schools.”

Principal Dr. Washington Collado, who was awarded Principal of the Year for 2021, urged the board to keep the school together.

“[Teachers] have expressed it every time they had an opportunity,” he said. “They ask, respectfully, that the Rickards community maintains its homogeneity in one place … We feel we would be able to work with our parents and in all their languages. A message goes out from Rickards Middle School in the various languages communicating every step of the way and everything that we do.”

The board voted for the portables option and the district will be relaying details to parents soon. The first day of school is Aug. 19.

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