Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Housing prices pinch quality of education

School district campaigns for affordable housing for teachers

Express Staff Writer

In Blaine County, a real estate agent?s dream could become the school district?s nightmare.

In recent years, the Blaine County School District, the largest public employer in the county, has felt the direct correlation between the availability of af-fordable housing for its teachers and the quality of education for its students. It is a problem that prompted School District Superintendent Jim Lewis to ac-tively pursue work force housing.

?We?ve always had quality teachers who have lived here and stayed here,? Lewis said.

He fears, however, that the schools district?s ability to offer the highest level of education could drastically change in the near future due to the rising cost of housing throughout the county.

?We are very aware that the price of housing has gone past the salary schedule,? Lewis said.

Although salaries for Blaine County teachers are 1.4 percent higher than the average in Idaho, and comparable to other mountain resort communities, the difference is not large enough to compensate for the rising cost of housing in Blaine County.

Housing costs have directly affected the district?s ability to both attract and retain teachers.

?Across the board, the recruitment and retention issue has increased over time,? Michael David, executive director of the Blaine County-Ketchum Hous-ing Authority said.

The school district?s 2 to 3 percent enrollment growth rate compounds the hiring and retention problem.

According to Lewis, newly hired teachers return one out of every four contracts offered them within the three-day grace period due to the cost of housing. ?They shop the real estate market and find they can?t afford to live here.?

According to a profile of Blaine County prepared by the Idaho Commerce and Labor in August 2004, the starting salary for elementary teachers in Blaine County is $17.11 per hour and secondary teachers in the county begin at $17.15 an hour.

?For new teachers it makes it difficult,? Lewis explained.

Stephanie Spindler, who moved this year from Vail, Colo., to teach at Wood River High School said, ?I?m married and have a dual income. I can?t imag-ine doing it by myself. If there weren?t two of us, there would be no way.?

?I know if we didn?t have a dual income it would be impossible,? agreed teacher Craig Eastop. Eastop?s wife also teaches in the district.

Lewis explained that the district also loses 25 percent of its teachers in their first five years.

?These teachers can rent, but can?t get in a position to buy a home,? Lewis said.

Although Spindler finds her situation manageable she does predict that buying a home could be ?a stumbling block in the future.?

Lewis explained the difficulty of recruitment and retention of teachers could turn the school district into a training ground as new teachers move on to other districts.

He said the change threatens the quality of education because it is important to maintain a mixture of experienced teachers. Students benefit from the en-ergy of new employees and the longevity of long-time teachers.

In order to maintain the quality of education in the area, the district is taking action to explore options for affordable housing for teachers and other public employees.

?We can?t wait any longer,? Lewis said. ?As a school district we have to become involved ourselves.?

The district is working with The Education Foundation, Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority and new developers to create affordable housing for public employees in new developments and on district land. Possible sites include district land near the Hemingway Elementary parking lot, the Woodside Elemen-tary lot and 17 acres of land in Carey.

The Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority currently provides affordable housing for the area?s low- and middle-income residents.

?Teachers and certain public employees we consider critical people have priority in the system,? Dick Duncan, development consultant with the Housing Authority said.

In the near future the district plans to implement a comprehensive housing plan that utilizes a ?three or four tiered approach to offer a selection,? Lewis said. The approach incorporates work force housing options with other subsidies such as low interest loans to enable employees who would otherwise lack an opportunity for housing.

If affordable housing were available ?a lot of other people would look at the district,? Eastop remarked.

Other mountain community school districts have similar programs in place. The Aspen School District in Aspen, Colo., implemented a comprehensive housing program for its teachers in 2002. The complete housing program offers below market interest loans and rental subsidy programs. The district couples the subsidy program with 28 residential units owned by the district.

Lewis said his personal goal is to see that the district is directly involved in a program in three years.

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