While some things about this school year demonstrated a shift away from some of the pandemic’s impacts, challenges with the local housing crisis, the national educator shortage and broader statewide funding formulas have persisted. This continuation of obstacles has led the Eagle County School District to resort to creative measures to address these challenges as it kicks off the school year.
The district has a current goal — as outlined in its 10-year Housing Master Plan created in 2020 — to develop 120 new housing opportunities by 2030.
Since 2020, the district has made some progress on this number through both longer-term projects — including breaking ground on a 37-unit apartment complex in Edwards, the completion of Grace Avenue with Habitat for Humanity, partnering on another Habitat project in Eagle, and making plans to revisit Maloit Park — as well as short-term answers such as securing master leases at local properties.
However, at the Wednesday, July 18 board meeting, Superintendent Phillip Qualman said that while this was “tremendous progress,” many of them are either under construction or still won’t be enough. Plus, housing is needed now as the district continues to face hiring and staffing challenges.
For this reason, the district got creative and made a call to the community.
Just before the start of the school year, Qualman sent out a letter to all property owners in Eagle County. The letter urged the community to put vacant houses, condos, lock-offs, caretaker units and empty bedrooms to use for district employees.
“We offer jobs daily that are turned down because applicants can’t secure housing,” Qualman wrote in the letter.
The response to the letter — and the community’s subsequent support — Qualman told the board at its Wednesday, Aug. 24 meeting “has been overwhelming.”
“I’m really pleased with the response from the community, they’ve really gone above and beyond to answer the call,” he said.
In an email to the Vail Daily on Thursday, Sept. 1, Qualman wrote that this letter allowed the district to add approximately 125 total rentals to the district’s internal classifieds board and inventory for employees.
However, while all are posted on this board, Qualman said that only 40% qualify as affordable, and only 9% qualify as affordable and as a “’stand-alone’ living situation.”
“In other words, 31% of the affordable options added to inventory are situations where a room was offered in a larger house/condo that is already occupied. That creates an option, though not an ideal situation for a professional adult,” Qualman wrote.
In this situation, Qualman wrote the definition of affordable is the same metric the district used to calculate a rental rate for a one-bedroom condo in its Edwards housing project.
This formula “is no more than 30% of gross income for base teacher salary spent on housing,” he added. “That calculates to about $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom.”
For those properties that meet these criteria and that are in “good locations with good rental rates,” the district is planning to reach out to those owners to “to see if we can secure some of those as master leases, so we can keep them in our inventory moving forward,” Qualman said at the board meeting.
As the district continues to face hiring and staffing challenges at the start of the school year, Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, said it was hard to tell how this new inventory was translating as a solution to these obstacles.
“Eagle County School District continues to work to hire staff so whether these efforts are directly translating to new hires or not is hard to say,” Miano said. “I do think that we are making inroads at helping our staff find long-term housing solutions while also working hard to fill the vacant positions that exist.”
While Qualman reported that the staffing numbers are fluctuating frequently and changing daily, as of Aug. 23, the district had 75 unfilled positions across its buildings.
“I don’t know that we have a single school that’s fully staffed and I know that none of our support staff departments are fully staffed,” Qualman said.
Of the 75 vacancies on Aug. 23, 26 were certified staff, 36 were support staff, nine were coaches and four were guest teacher positions.
One of the departments hit hardest is the district’s transportation team, Qualman said.
“We are down to 18 bus routes, and that’s probably going to drop in the next few weeks. At full capacity, we’d have 30 routes,” Qualman said.
Currently, the district is short 12 drivers and only have one driver that can do trips during the day for things like activities and field trips, he added. The district has the capacity to have five drivers for these types of trips.
As such, Qualman said the district’s “ability to do field trips, to do away games for sports are all compromised because we can’t hire enough people to do the work.”
The exact and full impact, Miano said on Thursday, Sept. 1 is unknown at this time.
“Much like the other issues that plague not only ECSD but districts across the state, we continue to find solutions that will minimalize the impacts these shortages have on activities and sports. From working on schedules that will coincide for various sports, to carpooling and pursuing other outside agencies that may be able to step in we are exhausting all options,” he said. “I have not heard of major impacts as of yet but just like everything else, this is ever-changing.”
The bus driver shortage was something the district faced and attempted to address last year by changing bell times as well as increasing wages for bus drivers and offering hiring bonuses. However, as Qualman addressed these improvements, he said their impact was softened as “all the transit authorities in the county follow suit and do the same thing so we’re struggling to get ahead.”
This, he added represents the uphill — and statewide — battle the district will face as it looks to fill all its vacancies.
“We pride ourselves in being competitive in what we pay compared to other districts in the state. That doesn’t mean that we’re competitive with the private companies in our community that get to operate on the free market when we don’t,” Qualman said. “Our budget is restricted by certain state formulas and it really puts us at a disadvantage to compete in a market where Colorado is not an ideal place for folks to work for K-12 education. But, we’re fighting the good fight.”
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