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Austin ISD wants teacher housing in the 2022 bond, but some educators are skeptical of the plan

Thursday, August 4, 2022 by Becky Fogel, KUT

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The Austin Independent School District is gathering feedback on a proposal to include funding for teacher housing in the potential 2022 bond package. While bond dollars cannot be used for salaries, the money can be used for construction and renovation projects.

The Austin ISD Board of Trustees is considering two draft bond proposals: one for $1.75 billion and one for $2.25 billion. An initial version of the larger package included $50 million for teacher housing. But when district officials presented the plan to the public during a series of meetings in July, they faced questions and concerns about housing.

“I think we were taken a little bit aback by some folks’ potential reluctance to come around to this idea,” AISD spokesperson Ali Ghilarducci said. “And I think really what that had to do with was the initial proposal was $50 million. That is a lot of money for a relatively vague plan that folks did not have a lot of understanding around.”

In the wake of those community meetings, the Bond Steering Committee, which developed the proposals the Austin ISD school board is considering, decided to remove the funding for teacher housing to free up money for other projects. But trustees could still decide to include teacher housing in the bond package it sends to voters in November. It would appear as a separate proposition on the ballot.

Ghilarducci said while this bond offers the first chance to get this type of project off the ground, Austin ISD has been exploring how to offer affordable housing for several years.

“We have a real estate director and he has done research of other school districts that have done teacher housing and we’ve had a couple of our properties assessed for feasibility,” she said.

At a virtual meeting Tuesday, the district’s director of real estate, Jeremy Striffler, said offering housing to teachers would not supplant efforts to increase pay for all Austin ISD employees.

“We really are trying to be creative in our approach here on how we can leverage our assets, which is our land as one of the largest landowners in the city of Austin,” he said. “We think we can put that to good use.”

Striffler pointed out teachers are in a “missing middle,” because the majority make too much to qualify for affordable housing programs yet struggle to afford the skyrocketing cost of housing. He added that almost 91 percent of AISD teachers make less than 80 percent of the 2022 median family income for Travis County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So what we’re talking about here is a goal to build high-quality housing for our teachers that is affordable relative to the salaries that they make,” Striffler said.

Norma Castillo, the assistant superintendent of human capital systems at Austin ISD, said offering teacher housing could be an important tool for retention and recruitment. Castillo said she often hears from people who would like to work in the district but can’t afford Austin.

“It’s a common, common occurrence that when we’re trying to recruit teachers to the area, while they want to work in our district, live in our city, they just can’t do it with what we pay,” Castillo said.

Teachers and community members who attended the virtual meeting raised a number of concerns about the affordable housing proposal. They wanted to know what the eligibility requirements would be and what would happen if someone living in teacher housing lost their job or decided to leave.

Castillo said the district wants to develop eligibility requirements in collaboration with teachers. Also if someone left or lost their job, she said it would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“I think all of that will be written out by a committee of teachers and other stakeholders … to be able to really write the detailed eligibility requirements and the ‘what ifs,’” Castillo said.

Austin ISD teacher Eric Ramos said the housing proposal seems rushed.

“It kind of honestly makes me feel like we’re being used as a pawn,” he said.

Ramos said the millions the district wants for affordable housing included in the bond could be spent on improving schools instead.

“You have to look at which we feel like is more useful,” he said.

Several attendees also asked why the proposal only applies to teachers and not other staff, especially those who make less than teachers.

District officials pointed to a 2019 state law that regulates how bond proposals appear on the ballot. Senate Bill 30 requires, for example, “the construction, acquisition or equipment of housing for teachers” to appear in a separate proposition on the ballot. That specific language about teachers makes it hard for school districts to argue they can issue bonds to construct housing for other staff.

If the Austin ISD Board of Trustees includes $50 million or a different amount for teacher housing in the 2022 bond package, voters will decide whether to approve it in November. If voters okay it, district officials say they would launch a survey and focus groups with teachers to learn what type of housing they want. Striffler said the district’s goal is to build between 500 and 1,000 units, and it would take two to three years. Austin ISD has just over 5,500 teachers.

Trustees are scheduled to vote on what’s included in the bond on Aug. 9.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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