RFSD bond series: Affordable housing a major issue facing school district
In the Roaring Fork School District, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts out at $35,691 a year — a fair margin above minimum wage, but not enough to buy a house or make resort rent prices easy to swallow.
“They’re in a bubble where they can’t quite afford everything, but they can’t qualify for subsidized programs,” said Superintendent Diana Sirko.
So $15 million for subsidized teacher housing is included in the district’s proposal to issue $122 million worth of bonds for which RFSD is seeking voter approval this fall. Ballots in the mail-in election will be sent to registered voters in the district next week, and voting ends Nov. 3.
The money would go to purchase or build 15 to 20 units each in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt. Any income generated by the renters would expand the program or maybe some form of down payment assistance.
“This gives us the potential to look at a lot of creative solutions,” Sirko said.
The exact details — including questions like length of stay and the ratio of old and new teachers as well as other staff — will be considered with community input if the bond passes.
According to Sirko, the proposal often prompts the same question: Why not just pay more?
Assistant superintendent Shannon Pelland has a simple answer: They just can’t.
“Almost 85 percent of our general fund budget right now goes to salaries and benefits,” Pelland said. “There’s not much flexibility beyond that.”
Funds from the state are still rebounding from the recession, and mill levy rates are capped too low to make a real difference. The district could increase salaries by cutting teachers and raising class sizes, but it would likely impact both student and teacher experience. Besides, the community has advocated small class sizes, and the last mill levy came with a pledge for just that.
Some community members have objected to the idea of public money going to subsidized housing, particularly when it might take a chunk out of an already tight rental market.
Sirko doesn’t see it as competition.
“They’re living somewhere. It’s not as if we’re generating a lot of new employees or new need; we’re simply accommodating it,” she said.
Most units that won’t be built from scratch will be coming from the sales market, not the rental market. At something like $300,000 each, they probably wouldn’t be an option for others in the teacher pay bracket, anyway.
“We have to stop the loss of staff members and increase our ability to attract people,” Sirko said. “Every single public entity faces the same challenge.”
While some teachers turn jobs or move away because of the housing market, others hang on in less than ideal circumstances.
Drawn to the valley by the high Spanish-speaking population, Roaring Fork High School ELL and English teacher Ericka Kelly couldn’t make ends meet as a full-time substitute and paraprofessional. She took on an extra job as a server in Carbondale, and even tacked on another serving gig for a while.
“I made more money serving,” she said. “Nobody gets into teaching because they want fame, glory and fat wads of cash.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love the valley and the kids,” she added. “It really is my dream job.”
Unfortunately, the means and the end can be at odds.
“I would spend my entire weekend working, and then by the time I got to grading, I couldn’t put in the effort I’d like to,” she said. “It’s like being wrung out too much. I’m always tired. I’m giving all I can, and it’s not always enough. They say that you get summers off as a teacher, but I’m always going to be working.”
She continued working into the new school year, bridging a gap between the start of school and the first pay day at the end of September. The situation got even more tricky when her housing fell through a week before teacher orientation. Luckily, she was able to find a place at a reasonable price between Redstone and Marble. It’s not an ideal commute, but at least she doesn’t have to have share the space.
“You come home, and you still have a bunch of papers to grade,” she said. “That can be a huge challenge in a roommate situation.”
Other teachers bypass that problem by living together.
Leah Wesley, a Spanish teacher at Glenwood Elementary, and her boyfriend Aaron Aday, a local architect, decided to get a roommate when they couldn’t quite make ends meet in Carbondale.
“I think what I make would be adequate if I was back in Kansas City,” Wesley said. “I thought it would be the two of us and it would be OK, but it was more than half my income.”
Enter Amelia Potvin, a third-grade teacher at GSES who has lived in six places in six years in the valley.
Between Wesley, Potvin, Aday and Aday’s sister Allison — a nurse at Valley View — $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom townhome with an unfinished basement became viable. It’s sometimes tricky to accommodate everyone, but the arrangement comes with the opportunity for carpooling and like-minded dialogue.
“We’ve joked that more teachers should live together because there’s built-in time to collaborate,” Potvin said. “The American Dream of a man, woman and two kids — you’re not gonna pull that off out here. That sort of opens the door to consider other models.”
Still, it’s not a dynamic built to last forever.
“I don’t know if it’s sustainable for me, but I want to make it work as long as I can,” Wesley said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful.”
Wesley isn’t the only one wondering about the long term.
When Glenwood Springs Elementary early childhood teacher Sarah Phythian arrived from Detroit in the spring, she and her boyfriend looked into homeownership. They were pre-approved for a mortgage on a $250,000 house, but couldn’t find anything within an hour commute that fit their needs.
“It’s not like we need something big, just something with a yard for the dog,” she said. “We both have good jobs. I feel like we should be able to find something.”
Her boyfriend, who works as an ironworker, had been living in a studio apartment near El Jebel. They ended up sharing the small space, with special accommodations from the landlord to allow for her dog, Rocky.
“It’s rough,” Phythian said. “We don’t have a kitchen table. There isn’t really a lot of room. Where I lived before I moved was about double the size for half the price.
“I am getting paid more than I was there, but the cost of living was a lot cheaper,” she added. “You get used to it after a while.”
While district-subsidized housing may not solve the problem for everyone overnight, the administration is convinced that now’s the time to act.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot of wheel spinning on this issue over the last 20 years,” Pelland said.
With construction costs rising, it may be now or never.
“As the economy continues to rebound, this problem becomes more critical, not less,” Sirko said. “It’s a beginning step. It’s not going to meet our needs forever, but you have to start somewhere.”
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