Housing woes

To hire and keep good teachers as housing costs rise, Colorado school districts take on new role: landlord

PHOTO: Mark Payler
Ray Perez, a sophomore at Custer County High School, works with instructor Bruce May on a project that will convert a former preschool building into teacher housing.

As Colorado’s housing costs skyrocket, a growing number of school districts, local leaders and lawmakers are taking steps to make housing more affordable for teachers and staff.

For years, resort communities such as Aspen and rural districts such as Woodlin on the Eastern Plains have leased housing to employees at below-market rates. More recently, subsidized housing for educators has cropped up in pricey urban areas such as San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore.

But lately, Colorado districts big and small are looking at building their own housing or collaborating with external partners to do so. Such projects are underway now in three rural districts, and Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is exploring the idea.

Driving these plans are fears that recruiting and retaining good teachers will shift from hard to impossible as housing costs rise. Compounding the problem is Colorado’s perennial school funding squeeze and the lagging teacher salaries that go with it.

“This year when it comes to hiring season, I will probably struggle to replace four to six teachers because of housing,” said David Blackburn, superintendent of the Salida school district in central Colorado. “It’s in the middle of every conversation about quality staff.”

In Denver, where an influx of new residents and a wave of gentrification have pushed up housing prices across the metro area, district officials say they’re in the earliest stages of figuring out how the district could help employees with housing.

Currently, the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation is compiling information for the district about models of subsidized teacher housing used across the country. Some have been spearheaded by school districts and others by real estate developers with little involvement from districts. (Chalkbeat is a grantee of the Donnell-Kay Foundation.)

Allen Balczarek, who works on special projects for Denver Public Schools, said specific recommendations could go before the school board or district leadership team in 2017.

He said the lack of affordable housing for teachers isn’t yet a crisis in Denver, but called it a very serious issue.

City officials say growing concerns about affordability spurred a new ordinance to raise $150 million over 10 years to create and preserve affordable housing for a wide range of Denver residents, from homeless individuals to families earning $64,000 to $96,000 a year.

Federal tax credits have already helped create affordable housing around the city, though many teachers make too much to qualify.

“There’s some we can help, but there’s probably many we can’t because of their income,” said Brent Snyder, manager of the company that developed and owns the new WeltonPark apartment complex in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

Most of the 223 units, which start around $840 a month, are restricted to tenants earning up to 60 percent of the area’s median income — around $34,000 a year if they’re single.

There’s a huge need for housing for middle-income Denver residents — those making more than 60 percent of the area median income, said Snyder.

Jim Wilson, a Republican state representative from Salida, said he plans to introduce a bill during the 2017 session that would give tax credits to employers that offer employee housing. While that wouldn’t directly help school districts or other public entities that don’t pay taxes, he said he’d like to find a way to do that.

Affordable housing is a statewide issue, he said. “It’s going to be a big topic of conversation at the statehouse this year.”

Roommates and rising rents

While there’s limited data showing that housing costs directly impact teacher recruitment and retention, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s a factor.

First-year Jefferson County teacher Krista Degerness, 34, said she had no problem finding a job after earning her master’s degree in special education last spring. But paying the bills has been trickier. She moved in with her sister to cut costs, paying $700 of the $1,700 rent for their Centennial townhouse. She earns $42,000 a year.

Degerness loves her job, but says, “The money is very hard.”

Alex Saldivar faced similar challenges when he moved from Indianapolis to Denver for a teaching job with DPS in 2015. He and his girlfriend paid $1,250 a month for their one-bedroom apartment, leaving when the rent increased to $1,450 the following year.

“That frankly is untenable,” he said. “They essentially pushed us out.”

Saldivar left his teaching job after a year and now works for a nonprofit organization in Denver.

Some superintendents say they start teacher candidate interviews with heart-to-hearts about the reality of housing costs in their communities. They don’t want candidates, especially those from out-of-state, jumping in with visions of majestic mountain peaks, and not the dollar signs that go with them.

Custer County superintendent Mark Payler said when he surveyed the southern Colorado district’s newer teachers recently, most said they planned to stay for only two to three years. One factor, he said, is the difficulty of securing decent housing on a starting salary of $29,500.

In Denver, a recent exit survey taken by teachers sheds some light on the subject. Of 219 teachers who left the district after the 2015-16 school year, 23 said Denver’s high cost of living was a big factor in their decision. Nearly 50 cited moving as a key reason for leaving, though there is likely overlap because respondents could cite multiple reasons.

Additional evidence comes from a September report from the National Housing Conference and the Center for Housing Policy that examined housing affordability for school employees in the nation’s biggest cities. Denver was among 24 cities where buying a house was unaffordable for teachers as well as lower-paid workers.

The “Paycheck to Paycheck” report also found that renting an apartment in Denver requires an annual salary of at least $49,000. While the district’s average teacher salary is around $54,000 with an average of $5,800 in additional stipends and incentives, the base salary for a beginning Denver teacher with a bachelor’s degree is about $40,000.

Emulating rural districts

The concept of providing subsidized teacher housing has a long history in some Colorado districts.

Take tiny Woodlin on the Eastern Plains. The district owns 14 housing units, including trailers, houses, and apartments, most built around 1960 right on the school campus. Most employees pay rent of $70-$105 per month and the district covers water and propane.

Other rural districts, such as Karval and Deer Trail, offer employees similar deals. Then there’s Aspen, which has 43 units of subsidized housing going for $850-$1,500 a month. Market rate rents easily surpass $2,000 a month there, said Superintendent John Maloy.

In the last 18 months, three other Colorado districts have launched projects to build employee housing — often with significant support from local civic leaders, banks and the business community.

Custer County is converting a vacant district-owned building — formerly a preschool — to four apartments with the help of community volunteers and high school students in the district’s building trades class. The one-bedroom units will be ready next July, with rent at $550 a month.

Salida Schools embarked on a similar project this fall, breaking ground for 10 new housing units in the nearby town of Poncha Springs. They’ll eventually be sold to district employees at below-market rates. Like in Custer County, building trades students are helping with construction.

Roaring Fork has the largest project underway, with plans to build a total of 60 new subsidized apartments in three locations using $15 million from the district’s 2015 bond issue. Those units will become available in 2018.

Superintendent Rob Stein said district officials initially shied away from including money for staff housing in the bond issue. They didn’t think the public would support it. But when two local educators, a beloved principal and his wife, a teacher, departed because they couldn’t afford a house in the area, things changed.

“That single story may very well have allowed us to move forward with going to voters for a bond,” Stein said.

In turn, such projects may soon spread to the Front Range — and some observers say not just Denver.

“I think the mountain towns … are the harbingers of what’s to come,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation. “I think you’re gonna see it in Cherry Creek, Aurora and Boulder.”

School districts as developers and landlords

Leaders in districts that already offer subsidized housing say it makes a big difference — serving as extra enticement to prospective teachers and making it easier for veteran teachers to stay.

“I’ve suddenly got a new tool I can go to market with when I’m looking for new teachers,” said Payler, Custer County’s superintendent.

But it also brings up lots of questions: Which employees get first dibs on the housing? Can some units be set aside for hard-to-fill positions? Will employees be allowed to stay in the units indefinitely? What happens if too few district staff need the housing?

For districts that have wrestled with these questions, the answers have evolved. For example, in 2015, the Aspen district established a five-year time limit for employees renting its subsidized units, in the hopes of making it a stepping stone as opposed to a permanent solution.

Beyond eligibility criteria, there’s also the fact that school districts with subsidized housing double as landlords, either hiring property management companies to handle leasing and maintenance or doing it themselves.

Rose Cronk, superintendent in the Woodlin district for more than a decade, said of the district-owned housing, “Sometimes I’m the one over there cleaning rainwater out of the bottom of the basement.”

In some districts now considering subsidized housing, administrators worry such projects could distract from their educational goals.

Balczarek said one of the key questions for Denver is, “How do we get into this without drifting too far from our mission?”

One possibility, he said, is to work with an external partner — maybe the city’s housing authority or a nonprofit group — to develop and manage housing on district property.

Even with the many complications involved in financing and managing subsidized housing, some district leaders note that, unlike that state’s intractable school funding system, it’s a problem that can be addressed locally.

“It’s another creative solution to the fiscal crisis schools are facing” Stein said.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”