Carlsbad hopes special housing keeps teachers

November 17, 2013 • State News

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — The beginning of the school year saw Kelli Barta, director of secondary education at Carlsbad Municipal Schools, scrambling together a list of rentals and hotel rooms which she could pass to inquiring teachers. The service is not part of her job description, but Barta was acting as de facto housing coordinator in what Superintendent Gary Perkowski said was the first stirring of a much wider housing crisis.

At the time the school district was in the process of filling 29 vacant instructional positions even as Carlsbad students were walking in the door.

But as the school year progressed, the administration was faced with a new challenge.

Staff retention was becoming an unforeseen problem. But the solution wasn’t as easy as buying paper and pens and twice as difficult as offering more benefits and higher wages.

In a board work session October 2 at the district’s administration offices, Superintendent Gary Perkowski informed board members and administration that a middle school science teacher had officially presented his resignation letter.

The reason cited for leaving the teaching position was more complicated than simple dissatisfaction.

The administration now knew that housing, available and affordable, was going to be a challenge for its teachers.

Reportedly the staff member had been unable to find affordable housing in the area and had been living in a local motel after relocating to assume the teaching position. And this science teacher wasn’t the only one.

According to Perkowski, Carlsbad schools lost five teachers in the first three months of the 2013-14 school year because of housing issues.

It was beginning to seem that it just didn’t pay to live or teach in [auth] Carlsbad.

According to data from the New Mexico Public Education Department, Carlsbad ranks third in highest-paid returning teachers in the state.

Teachers in Carlsbad receive an average $58,732 in salary yearly according to the 2013-2014 data from NMPED.

Carlsbad school district is budgeting more than $20 million in teaching contracts as recorded by the NMPED.

That is well above the statewide average of $46,252 among the 89 districts in the state.

Carlsbad’s teachers are also the highest paid when ranked among districts of similar size including Alamogordo, Clovis, Hobbs and Deming.

That average salary in Carlsbad is up $1,171 from the previous year budget for returning teachers.

According to Perkowski, it’s these numbers that skew the picture of the challenge a large number of the instructional staff face.

The five employees who were lost to housing issues were all beginning teachers receiving a Level 1 salary of $36,070.

In September, the National Education Association negotiated a pay raise for local union teachers; their first in six years. With the new contract, teaching staff would see an average 2 percent increase in compensation in the upcoming year.

While such a high salary average is an attractive incentive for potential recruits, it is becoming outweighed by the realities of living and working in Carlsbad.

The situation left many asking why, if Carlsbad’s teachers are among the highest paid in the state, were they finding it difficult to find affordable housing.

The answer, for many, has to do with the economic boom the area is experiencing.

There are fewer housing options available and those temporary housing solutions presented to salaried teachers are above their means.

The lowest rate for a hotel in Carlsbad hovers just over $60.

At the higher end, the Hampton Inn and Suites’ rates go as high as $260 a night for a weeknight.

A week in a lower-range hotel could potentially cost up to $500.

The New Mexico Association of Realtors reported that the median price range for single family home in Eddy County in August 2013 was $133,000. While a single family apartment has a median price range of $600.

In response to the number of teachers who have resigned from their positions on the teaching staff and a high number of teachers who are informing administrators of their difficulty in finding adequate affordable housing the district is considering an old approach the what Perkowski says is a new problem.

“We’ve hit that wall where we have to do something to keep beginning teachers in our district,” Perkowski said.

A teacherage was traditionally a small room or living area attached to the school building in rural areas during the early part of the century.

The first modern teacherages were established in New Mexico’s most rural areas, the Native American reservations.

Recently, however, that idea has been adopted by public education districts statewide. There are teacherages now in several districts, including Hobbs, which is expected to see similar growth and housing needs as Carlsbad.

Carlsbad School District is considering a similar subsidized housing project.

According to Perkowski a recent trip to Albuquerque has brought good news. He was informed that funds from upcoming bonds could potentially go toward not only the building of a teacherage, but the purchase of real estate by the district.

Perkowski envisions several properties owned by the district which could be short-term leased to new teachers until the area’s housing supply corrects itself.

For now, the building and purchasing of housing remains the school district’s best plan.

Perkowski says that the school district has no leverage to incentivize local real estate and housing firms to work with them in providing housing for teachers.

The growth Carlsbad is experiencing from recent oil and gas industry growth has brought the city population to some all-time highs. Workers moving into the area bring with them children who will be entering the local school district. Carlsbad saw a rise in enrollment during the 2013-14 school year of more than 100 students, and it is a number that Perkowski estimates will only continue to grow.

A growing number of students means a need for more staff. On Monday, Oct. 28, the last of the vacant positions, the middle school science position, was filled — this time by a teacher who Perkowski said was thankfully married and in a position to afford housing.

Teaching positions in Carlsbad are unusually long lived, according to administration staff. On Barta’s mind is the large number of instructional staff nearing or considering retirement in the coming years.

It’s a classic Catch 22.

“We may be facing a bigger problem,” Perkowski said.

When those teachers finally decide to make the leap to retirement, new teachers will need to be found to fill their positions and possibly fill new positions based on student enrollment. When that happens, the cycle begins again — with Barta making a list of rentals and hotel rooms in the area who might have a vacancy.

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