Roaring Fork Schools superintendent says he will likely decline school board’s housing-assistance offer

‘Town Hall’ discussion called by district to address staff housing challenges

Roaring Fork School District teachers, staff and supporters packed the March 15 school board meeting to oppose a proposal to oppose the superintendent housing assistance proposal for Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez and future superintendents.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Given the groundswell of opposition to a proposal from the Roaring Fork District school board to provide up to a $500,000 housing-assistance loan for the district’s top administrator, Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez said Wednesday that he will likely decline the offer.

“I would like to thank the board for their exploration of housing assistance for the superintendent,” he said in a prepared statement at the Wednesday night Board of Education meeting in Carbondale.

Nearly all of the 130-plus written comments and dozen-plus people who spoke in person at the meeting were opposed to the plan and requested the board step back for further discussion. Rodríguez said he expects to “respectfully decline” the pending offer.

“… (N)ot because I disagree with the offer, but because it is an untenable situation to be in as the first beneficiary of such a program,” he said.

With that, though, he said he would encourage the school board to continue to explore some type of housing-assistance program — not only for the superintendent’s position, but also in support of teachers and staff who also are struggling to find attainable housing within the district.

“I don’t want there to be any confusion about my motivation or my recommendation to the board to continue to explore this,” Rodríguez said. “We must continue to prioritize housing solutions, including for the next superintendent of the schools.”

Board President Kathryn Kuhlenberg said earlier this week that the discussion among board members predated Rodriguez accepting the superintendent position. She said that the vast majority of applicants for the position said a lack of housing assistance to take the job would be a “deal-breaker.”

Some attendees at the Wednesday, March 15, 2023, Roaring Fork District school board meeting placed pencils behind their ears in support of teachers.
John Stroud/Post Independent

For its part, the school board also announced Wednesday that it will host a “town hall” discussion at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22, at the District Office in Carbondale to have an “honest conversation” about the challenges for district staff — from teachers and school support staff to district-level administrators — to find affordable housing in the valley.

“This is a reflection of why this community is strong,” board member Natalie Torres said in response to the overwhelming outcry from teachers, staff and parents that a $500,000 offer for the district’s top-paid official would be unfair and inequitable.

“We never felt like that was a final number but rather a starting place for a discussion,” she said.

It also wasn’t a done deal, she and other board members said, adding they learned a lesson through the process about providing better transparency and communicating their intentions when such proposals are made.

The board clarified that the request did not come from Rodríguez, and that it was a conversation started by board members. Any terms of a potential loan offer to him would have needed to be further negotiated before any decisions were made, the board said.

Next week’s town hall meeting comes at the end of a full day devoted to addressing the valley housing crisis, at the “Solving the Housing Crisis: A Regional Summit on Equitable Solutions” to be held at the Aspen Meadows.

Though not intentionally scheduled to coincide with that event, it could serve as an appropriate follow-up to the day’s discussions. Roaring Fork Schools Chief Operating Officer Jeff Gatlin is scheduled to be one of the panelists at the summit, talking about district efforts to build or obtain more than 120 subsidized rental units for qualified teachers and staff over the past five or so years.

That’s one of the reasons board members said they felt a down-payment assistance program for the superintendent and other senior-level staff, which is also being explored, was important.

One after another, though, teachers and others who spoke at the board meeting said the offer came across as inequitable when many teachers and staff, even those living in the subsidized housing units, continue to struggle.

Crystal River Elementary School teacher Elley Mcbrayer said she was recently forced to make the difficult decision to resign at the end of the school year. Even though she grew up in Carbondale and came back to become a teacher in the same school system, she said the cost of living has forced her out.

Noting that her salary is just 25% of Rodríguez’s $220,000 annual salary, she said teachers should be given priority in any housing-assistance program.

“If the highest-paid person in the district can’t make it, who will?” Mcbrayer asked.

Several speakers applauded the board for approving the new Interest-Based Bargaining package that increased the starting wage for teachers to $50,000 a year. But housing costs continue to be a problem, they said, even at that rate of pay. 

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