TRUCKEE, Calif. - A greenhouse filled with rows of plump tomatoes, hardy spinach and other fruits and vegetables isn't only a place of agriculture, but an outdoor classroom.
As a way to enhance local youth education, a proposal to construct a Growing Dome - a geodesic greenhouse having features such as temperature activated vents and a water tank to allow for year-round growing in colder climates - at Truckee Elementary School is moving forward.
"...We really feel like this Growing Dome would provide us with great means to really focus our curriculum and integrate (curriculum areas)," said school Principal Valerie Simpson during a project presentation at the Jan. 9 Tahoe Truckee Unified School District's Board of Trustees meeting.
Carolyn Stewart, a science enrichment teacher at the school, said the dome would allow students to learn about nutrition and botany, among other topics, through hands-on experience.
"The idea that so many students would have access to that kind of learning, that systems-based learning where they are not only reading, but doing it, it's very exciting," she said at the meeting.
The Dome Raising Project - a community collaborative among the nonprofit Tahoe Food Hub, various institutional partners and locals interested in raising Growing Domes for education and food procurement purposes in the Lake Tahoe region - will help coordinate the project from "concept to completion," said Susie Sutphin, co-executive director of Tahoe Food Hub, at the meeting.
Ways it will do so is by working with the school and other schools interested in a Growing Dome to develop and approve a budget; organizing pre-building details such as ordering the dome kit from the manufacturer, Growing Spaces, based out of Pagosa Springs, Colo.; and establishing a garden committee composed of volunteers to maintain the dome post-construction.
As proposed, the Truckee Elementary dome would be placed where the school's backyard garden currently exists, Simpson said.
"It's really a great location," she said. "It's easily accessible by kids, and it's easily accessible to the science lab."
Before it can be built on school property, however, the dome would need to be approved by the Division of the State Architect, which provides design and construction oversight for K-12 schools and community colleges throughout California. The Dome Raising Project will help prepare the application for DSA, Sutphin said.
"It's a huge process," cautioned John Britto, district director of facilities, at the meeting. "They can, at will, throw in all sorts of things you don't expect. There's going to be ADA or access requirements that you're not going to be thinking about."
It is the district's "assumption" the dome would be treated as a "project" under the California Environmental Quality Act, said Superintendent Rob Leri in a follow-up interview. This means architects and/or engineers would be needed, plans and specs would need to be developed, inspections would have to be done and reliable funding from outside sources would need to be identified and in place, according to the school district.
The one-time cost for the proposed 28-foot diameter Growing Dome kit is $23,950, Sutphin said in a follow-up interview. That's not including pre-construction costs, installation and post-construction costs including annual maintenance.
"The PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) has funds," said Alex Herrera, co-president of the Truckee Elementary PTO. "We do not want to spend all of the funds we have on this, so we would raise additional funds. But I want to make it clear that we can get this off the ground."
In a follow-up interview, Herrera stressed the importance of fundraising since the PTO has other causes it supports.
"I can't imagine being critical of it on its face," said board member Randy Hill. "Unfortunately, the timing isn't the best to bring this up ... The only thing that I would be concerned about is this becoming a burden to the district financially and that the enthusiasm doesn't overshadow the importance of some very, very tough business decisions and analysis and worst-case scenarios."
Herrera mentioned that should there be a "dry spell" with maintenance volunteers, the PTO plans to set aside some funds to help pay for maintenance. As for a worst-case scenario - if funds are exhausted and there are no "new champions" to help - the Dome Raising Project would dismantle the dome and take it away.
"Although we all are in a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction mode right now because of our money situation, I think, speaking on my own behalf, this is fantastic," said board member Kristen Livak. "This is really, really exciting."
The board is in agreement with the idea, so planning will move forward, Leri said in a follow-up interview.
"The goal is to have project approval and begin construction this summer, which would mean that board approval of contracts (related to construction) would have to happen in the spring," he said. "However, it would depend on submittal to the Division of the State Architect (DSA), selection of a contractor and associated contracts.
"Because this is not a typical school building and the DSA does not review this type of thing often, it is hard to say how long the state process will take."
Two other schools in the district have also expressed interest in Growing Domes: Kings Beach Elementary School, in line with the Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe, and Tahoe Lake Elementary School, Leri at the meeting.
Nationally, Growing Spaces has 80 domes on school properties, Sutphin said.