As a teacher shortage persists statewide, La Plata County school districts are grappling with high housing costs and low teacher salaries, which can make filling positions challenging.
Across the state and county, school districts are building and purchasing homes to help meet the need for housing and recruit staff.
Ignacio School District purchased housing for teachers this summer, and Durango School District 9-R might also get into the development game.
Last school year, 264 teaching positions statewide went unfilled, and 933 positions were filled by long-term substitutes, retired educators, alternative licensing candidates and emergency authorization candidates, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
Bayfield School District Superintendent Kevin Aten said he expects the teacher shortage to deepen as teachers retire, fewer teachers graduate from Colorado colleges and teacher salaries remain low.
“Colorado is not attractive for teachers,” he said.
But districts are investing in their teachers.
Voters in the Roaring Fork School District approved a $122 million bond issue in 2015 to build apartment complexes for teachers in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, according to The Aspen Times. Students in Westcliff remodeled a Custer County school building into four units to house educators, said Sam Elson with the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit focused on improving public education.
In Ignacio, the school district has provided housing at reduced rental rates to its staff for decades and recently purchased two new homes from San Juan College in Farmington, expanding the number of units it owns to 11, Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said.
“We don’t have enough housing in Ignacio; we have to come up with something,” he said.
The housing shortage in Ignacio forces some teachers to commute to town from Bayfield or Durango. Sometimes, teachers leave the district because of the commute, he said.
The rental housing can also help with recruitment because starting pay for first-year teachers in Ignacio is $32,800, significantly lower than Bayfield’s or Durango’s.
The Ignacio district manages the housing with district staff, and the housing generates income for the district, Fuschetto said. When the district’s funding has been cut by the state or federal government, the district tapped into its rental housing income to help pay for school expenses, he said.
The rental income also allowed the district to purchase the two new homes, he said.
The Ignacio district owns land that could accommodate 20 to 25 more homes, but the district has no short-term plans to build or buy additional housing, Fuschetto said.
Fuschetto could not provide the final cost of the homes because they are still under construction, he said. But he expected the homes to cost $130 to $135 a square foot, below the county average of $170 to $200, he said.
In Durango, School District 9-R teacher salaries start at $40,000, but the district will still have to consider building housing for staff in the next few years, Superintendent Dan Snowberger said.
“We are going to have to find some solution to support our staff,” he said.
The median home price in Durango is $499,250, according to the Durango Area Association of Realtors.
Snowberger said he would like to see the district consider building multifamily housing for staff in partnership with other public entities, such as the city.
The Bayfield School District has not considered building housing for staff because it does not own land, but a shortage of rental units in the town is an issue for new teaching staff, Aten said. Some Bayfield teachers commute from Three Springs because of the rental housing shortage.
The district focuses on fair pay for teachers and is working on a comparison of its salaries to other school districts, he said. The district’s starting salary for teachers is $35,400.
For Aten, the core of the problem is low state funding for education in Colorado.
“We just need to fund our schools and our teachers better,” he said.