School board still pondering housing plan

New trailers at a bargain price?

By Mark Reaman

The Gunnison Watershed School District board hopes to be able to approve at least a statement of direction at its May 20 meeting for how to deal with its staff housing situation. The district, like many major employers in Gunnison County, is finding it difficult to recruit teachers and other staff to take jobs because of the difficulty of finding adequate housing in the Valley. 

While not yet ready to support a detailed proposal for how to solve the housing gap, the board members all seem ready to give the reins to district superintendent Leslie Nichols to research potential partnerships and opportunities for future housing.

Earlier this spring the board had a lengthy discussion over a somewhat detailed analysis provided them by Nichols and affordable housing expert Willa Williford. The board was somewhat hesitant to adopt a detailed plan given their lack of knowledge of the broader housing picture, coupled with uncertainty of funding sources and some pushback from existing teachers and staff who voiced displeasure that it wasn’t fair for the district to subsidize housing for new workers and concern that spending money on housing might negatively impact the ability of the district to provide higher wages.

At the May 6 meeting, Nichols provided a pared down one-page summary addressing the housing situation. “After the previous discussion I pulled together a synthesized plan for the board to consider,” said Nichols. “The one-page provides the basic parameters about the general beliefs we’ve expressed as a district. I think we all agree we need staff to run our schools.” 

The document stated the problem the district was having in terms of housing being available for staff throughout the Valley but made clear it was not yet at a point to establish firm goals regarding the number of units to develop or a specific timeline for development “because adequate funding solutions do not currently exist.” The document emphasized also that the district would “not develop an employee housing program that impairs its abilities to pay employees the best salaries it possibly can.”

The proposal suggested an employee rental program would be self-sustaining and the district would “not seek to incur further debt through bond funding during at least the next ten years.” 

Nichols wrote about the need to proceed with caution.

“The housing pressures in the valley are real and it affects our ability to recruit staff. There are not enough houses in the valley,” said Nichols. “We are a large employer with an interest in finding solutions to housing our employees.”

Nichols again emphasized there is no intent to have housing costs impact the district‘s ability to pay employees better or take away from operating funds. She indicated she was hesitant to go further into debt in the near future for housing and said since the district owned two housing units for staff in Crested Butte, the next priority should be for Gunnison units.

“It’s a good start,” said board member Mark VanderVeer. “I am a little leery to definitively say the district shouldn’t take on debt. I think you might have to, so it should stay an option. Ruling out debt for ten years is a long time. The challenge is finding a price point that teachers are willing to pay.”

VanderVeer said while the ideal would be for staff to pay around $1500 per month, that might not be possible given market realities. 

Mobile home opportunity?

Board member Mandy Roberts said she did some personal investigation and reached out to Gunnison County officials about somehow partnering with one of their upcoming projects. She also said she talked to the developer of the former Frontierland mobile home park who is renovating the park in Gunnison. She said Mike Carnes told her he is willing to consider selling the school district 10 two-bedroom/two-bath mobile homes for about $150,000 or less each plus the cost of monthly land rental. Roberts suggested the board consider taking $1.5 million of the district’s $4 million capital reserves and look into buying ten units that could be put to use before the start of the 2024/25 school year.

“They are solar and electric-ready and this seems like such an amazing price for a new home,” Roberts said. “I am extremely excited at the idea of obtaining housing before the next school year. At the same time, I think we should then consider providing bonuses for existing staff over the next five years with some of the rest of the money in the reserves.”

 She suggested perhaps awarding $1,000 per employee per year in an effort to retain staff while keeping about $1 million in the reserve fund as a cushion. 

Nichols and the rest of the board said the idea was worth pursuing and Roberts will check-in with Nichols to vet the information and find out further details. “We would have to a lot of due diligence on the value of mobile homes and the arrangement for the land lease. But it is an interesting option,” said Nichols.

“As much as the board has received a lot of letters from teachers and staff which think we shouldn’t be pursuing this, we have to take the longer view,” VanderVeer said. “That view is that part of our role is to make sure we have the ability to hire teachers in the future. That may not be 100% supported by everyone but we need to be in a place to work toward solving the problem. Sometimes everyone wants grandiose solutions, but small step opportunities can sometimes be better.”

VanderVeer said he wanted Nichols to be part of the community housing conversations and potential solutions. “That’s the right direction in my mind even if not everyone likes it,” he said.

‘Twenty years ago, none of the big employers in the Gunnison Valley had to be in the housing business,” said Nichols. “We aren’t doing this because we love our new employees more than we love our old employees. We’re doing this because our job is to educate kids and if we’re going to have professionals in the classroom, this may be the length we need to go to make that happen. We love the existing staff. When the current staff leaves, we need to be able to bring in new staff to replace them. The conditions are different now than when the existing staff came in.”

Board president Tyler Martineau said he agreed with VanderVeer that the district shouldn’t automatically rule out seeking bond funds in the next ten years. ”Why should we bind future boards,” he asked. “I don’t mind expressing caution over the move but don’t want to rule it out completely.”

Martineau also said that while the district has two housing units in Crested Butte, he doesn’t want to take off the table the option to do more in the North Valley if the right opportunity should arise in Crested Butte before Gunnison.

“I am in favor of adopting this statement but don’t consider it a plan,” added Martineau. “A plan to me is a much more comprehensive document. I think it would throw people for a loop when they see the word plan. This doesn’t really do it for me. We were on the route to doing that with Willa’s work. It is more in the nature of a housing statement or direction.” 

Board member Jody Coleman said she was comfortable with the direction. “We need to authorize you (Nichols) to engage in the housing conversations in the community,” she said. 

“We need to get going on this and keep the conversations going,” said Roberts.

VanderVeer said he would like some acknowledgment of the funding needs. “It doesn’t have to be specific at this point but maybe a range of what might be expected,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a monetary commitment at this point.”

“It is important to recruit but also retain staff,” reiterated Roberts. “Hopefully we can obtain ten units by fall with no added debt to the district. That seems like common sense to me.”

Nichols said she agreed retaining staff was as important as recruiting new employees.

“The bottom line is that we are instructing the superintendent to proceed with researching possible partnerships and funding solutions for employee housing development,” concluded Martineau. He said that down the line the district would have to recognize the details of the when and how it all works in an equitable fashion.

“We have existing policies for that,” assured Nichols.

Nichols said she would take the most recent board feedback and recraft the district’s statement and present it to the board at the next meeting.

“Hopefully we get something at the May 20 meeting that we can all agree with,” said board member Anne Brookhart. 

The rest of the board agreed.

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