Housing down payment offer for Roaring Fork Schools superintendent raises questions among teachers, public
A plan to offer $500,000 in down payment assistance to help the current and future superintendents of the Roaring Fork Schools buy a home here is coming under fire as the district school board appears prepared to approve the loan.
“After months of research by the board of various housing assistance options, the board has decided that for the position of superintendent, it will offer a lump sum down payment loan toward a property of its single employee’s choosing,” Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education President Kathryn Kuhlenberg states in a memo that’s before the board for this Wednesday’s meeting in Carbondale.
That “single employee” is Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez, who is the lone district employee who answers directly to the school board.
“We have arrived at this decision for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, as stewards of public dollars, we feel strongly that this is the most fiscally responsible option for addressing this concern now and in the future,” Kuhlenberg wrote.
The board, at its March 1 meeting, directed Rodríguez and district staff to explore a broader down payment assistance program for all district staff, but with an emphasis on district-level administrative staff who cannot qualify for district-owned rental housing.
“We unanimously agree that housing is a major concern for the Roaring Fork School District’s ability to attract and retain employees at all levels,” Kuhlenberg wrote, adding the board stands behind the effort to provide housing options for staff, including the creation of an additional 50 units in the planned Meadowood project in Carbondale.
That project is expected to cost roughly $520,000 per unit, or between $24 million and $28 million total. Initial funding to get the project off the ground is also on the agenda for approval by the school board on Wednesday.
“While this is a massive investment, it is an investment in our people, and we recognize that is the right thing to do,” Kuhlenberg wrote.
Beyond that, she said Monday that the school board has been researching options for providing down payment assistance or a housing allowance of some sort for the district superintendent since before Rodríguez was hired last spring.
Of the 22 applicants the district and its search consultant reviewed for the position after former Superintendent Rob Stein announced his resignation last year, 20 indicated they would need some sort of housing assistance to live in the valley, Kuhlenberg said.
“Some said it would be a deal-breaker,” she said.
The cost of housing within the school district, ranging from a median price of $900,000 in Glenwood Springs to $1.5 million in Carbondale and Basalt, and rents equaling the mortgage a home buyer would pay in purchasing a house, has changed the hiring landscape across the board, Kuhlenberg said.
But some district staff, including teachers for which the district has struggled to hire and retain due to the cost of living, feel that such a large amount to help the district’s highest-paid employee get into housing is unfair.
“I don’t believe this action is truly based on equity and community,” said Jeane Lakin, a teacher at Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale. “If we want to be equitable, we have to be thinking not just about the short term, but our long-term needs.”
The school district’s subsidized rental housing works for some, including her, she said, due to having a second income in the household because she’s married. But it doesn’t work for others.
“For anyone who doesn’t have a second income and is in a district apartment, a (pay) raise doesn’t make it easier because the rent rises proportionally with your raise,” said Lakin, who plans to join other district staff, parents and community members in speaking before the school board on Wednesday.
“Barely having a livable rent is not the same as lending someone a reasonable amount of money to help them buy a house,” she said in support of an across-the-board approach to housing assistance.
But offering such a large amount for one employee is unfair, she said.
Others have weighed in with written comments to the board ahead of the meeting.
“This is an unprecedented expense, unnecessary, extravagant and doesn’t follow the historically fiscally responsible financial practices of the district,” wrote Jessica Kreiling, who teaches in the district along with her husband, Jason. “I believe that the superintendent salary, $220,000, is sufficient to get a start here in the valley and am opposed to this proposal.”
Kuhlenberg said the down payment offer is not coming at Rodríguez’s request, and that he wasn’t even included in the discussions between the board and an outside consultant that helped offer some solutions.
“There has never been a promise to Dr. Rodríguez to provide housing, and I want to emphasize that this is not for Dr. Rodríguez,” she said. “It’s for the position of superintendent, so that we can effectively hire now and in the future.”
Rodríguez would, however, be the first beneficiary of the program, she said, adding that about 25% of school district superintendents in Colorado receive some type of housing assistance.
Through its research, Kuhlenberg said the board looked at options including a one-time stipend, rather than a loan, or even buying a house to serve as the superintendent’s quarters.
“All of those would be really difficult because it would involve an outlay of ongoing expenses,” she said. A stipend, for instance, is considered compensation for which the district would have to match benefits.
A no-interest upfront loan to be paid back with interest beginning to accrue after six to 12 months seemed to be the most responsible approach, she said. That way, the program is also self-sustaining, as would be any broader down payment assistance the district might offer to other employees, she added.
One written comment to the board came from Carbondale town trustee and a parent of students in the Carbondale schools, Erica Sparhawk. She suggested the district look at a housing buy-down program for district staff, similar to what some municipalities have done or are exploring.
“I’d like to make sure that you are connecting with regional efforts of other local governments to do the same thing,” Sparhawk wrote. “The state is offering grants and there is huge potential when our local governments use their funding to leverage additional dollars that are available to help tackle this important issue.”
She encouraged the board to give priority first to teachers when it comes to providing housing assistance.
Another parent with students in Basalt schools, Auden Schendler, agreed.
“It makes sense, in this insane housing market, to help with housing,” he said. “But the superintendent makes almost four times what a well-paid teacher does. And this is in a school district where many teachers commute each day from as far away as Parachute.”
Max McGee, who works with the HYA Associates consulting team that the board used to explore housing assistance options in the district’s superintendent hiring process, agreed the Roaring Fork district is on the right track.
“Providing housing not only ensures the optimal field of applicants but is also a fiscally responsible wise investment in the district’s long term future,” he said in a statement passed along by Kuhlenberg. “Unlike adding to a superintendent’s salary, housing becomes a district asset, does not require additional payments to the state retirement system, does not annually add to the superintendent’s compensation, and becomes a ‘leg up’ in recruiting future top talent in a highly competitive market for district leaders.”
The Wednesday school board meeting is slated to begin at 5 p.m. with a pair of closed-door executive sessions related to real estate and superintendent contract matters. The regular session is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. at the District Office in Carbondale, 400 Sopris Ave.
A final decision on the down payment assistance proposal for the superintendent is not expected until the April 12 school board meeting.
Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at email@example.com or at 970-384-9160.
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