‘We need to do something’: Summit School District officials seek to build workforce housing for staff

From teachers to bus drivers, district leaders say a lack of affordable options has hampered retention and hiring. But they also acknowledged it could be years before a project is completed.

School buses are pictured at the Summit School District's bus barn in Frisco. From teachers to bus drivers, district leaders said they are struggling to retain essential workers amid the county's high cost of living and lack of affordable housing.
Tripp Fay/Summit Daily News archive

As the cost of living rises and housing affordability drops in Colorado’s High Country, school districts find themselves taking on an unprecedented role: housing development. 

In recent years, leaders of rural districts have formed partnerships and raised millions of dollars to construct workforce homes. In Summit County, where the average single-family home sells for more than $2 million, school officials say they, too, must act.

“We have to be both diligent and methodical and cautious — and, at the same time, there’s no time to waste,” Summit School Board of Education member Chris Guarino said during a March 23 meeting. “We can’t afford to not do this.”

The Summit School District is embarking on a multi-year plan to provide income-based workforce housing for its staff amid a backdrop of dwindling recruitment and retention rates. Superintendent Tony Byrd, speaking to board members on March 23, said in some instances the district has dropped from having dozens of applicants for a position to just a handful. 

“We continue to have high levels of turnover in our teachers,” Byrd said. “It’s very hard for us to recruit people right now. Our numbers are way down.”

According to a 2021 housing report by the nonprofit Keystone Policy Center, the average teacher salary in the county was $67,000 while just 6% of the county’s housing stock was considered to be affordable to teachers, leaving some to live in cars or vans, Byrd said.

District officials have also struggled to attract other staff members, like bus drivers, as they compete with other employers that are able to offer higher salaries and, in some cases, housing incentives. 

While officials have labeled housing an urgent need, they also acknowledged development could take years. The district remains in the early stages of the work, having identified potential land while it prepares to embark on a housing needs assessment to better understand what the project would look like in terms of number of units, amenities and price points.

“From the day you start design, you’re still probably three years from handing a key to a teacher, and we’ve got a long way before we can even start design,” Guarino said.

Currently, the district is considering four different land parcels. Two are 10-acre plots — one in Silverthorne and one between Summit High School and the town of Breckenridge — while another is 13 acres and located behind the high school. The smallest parcel, just over 4 acres, is near Summit Middle School and the district’s central office. 

Byrd said the district may model its plan of similar ventures in nearby areas, such as the Roaring Fork School District — which covers Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt. 

A partnership with Habitat for Humanity allowed that district to secure 14 for-sale units for district staff. The successful passage of a $20 million bond provided funding for Roaring Fork Schools District to build 66 rental units for staff, ranging in price from $900 to $1,400 per month — depending on the number of bedrooms. 

But those models may not be a perfect fit for Summit County, which faces greater land challenges than some of its neighboring communities. 

“Both Eagle (County School District) and Roaring Fork have a lot more land … we don’t have as many opportunities in Summit County. We’re running out of space,” said Board President Kate Hudnut before adding, “We need to do something.”

That example alone also illustrates the cost of such a project, officials said, meaning the district will have to hash out a plan for its funding mechanism. 

“Our capital funding is relatively limited. We have just over $1 million dollars of ongoing funding a year,” said Chief Financial Officer Kara Drake. “So if we’re talking about something as large as building housing … then we will have to figure out how we fund.”

After securing funding, settling on a design and hiring a developer, district officials said it could be as late as 2027 before housing is built. In the meantime, Byrd and others said they were committed to focusing on short-term solutions that include rental deposit assistance, working with local banks to secure favorable loans for district employees, and centralizing housing resources for staff.

Board member Julie Shapiro said she wants the district to stay focused on long-term projects but not lose sight of its more stopgap solutions which she felt could be expanded on. The issue extends beyond housing, Shapiro said, and threatens the district’s ability to close gaps on learning goals such as literacy. 

“We have to find a bridge so that our teachers come and they stay,” Shapiro said. “We just can’t wait until the units are built out to say, ‘Now we have teacher stability.’”

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