Arkansas Advocate
Marianna Democratic Sen. Reginald Murdock addresses guests at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Lee County School District’s teacher housing project on Feb. 20, 2024. Antoinette Grajeda

A national trend of using teacher housing as a recruitment and retention tool has arrived in Arkansas where at least two districts want to use their resources to offer teachers affordable housing.

Several other districts are exploring the idea of using housing as an incentive to attract the shrinking number of teaching candidates.

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In February, Lee County School District officials celebrated the groundbreaking of construction on four duplexes with eight units at a former Marianna elementary school site.

The Bentonville Public School District’s plan to construct homes near its high school stalled last month when the city council rejected a rezoning request. The school board plans to discuss the matter at its Tuesday meeting.

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While Bentonville officials said teachers are struggling to find affordable housing with prices skyrocketing in rapidly growing Northwest Arkansas, Lee County Superintendent Micheal Stone said his rural eastern district lacks a supply of quality homes.

“In this area, the Delta area, it’s hard to already recruit and retain teachers anyway, but in this area, we don’t have space for them to live, comfortable spaces for teachers to live…so by providing a space where they could come and live, that makes it easier for us to retain and recruit teachers,” Stone said.

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In Marianna, each two-story unit will offer about 1,500 square feet of space, and Stone said the $3.9 million dollar project will be funded using American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money.

Officials anticipate completing construction by the end of July. Stone said details about rental agreements are still being decided, but he expects renters would agree to work in the district for two to three years and rent revenue would be used for maintenance and operations.

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If the town could attract developers to construct more new homes, Stone said the ideal situation would be transitioning teachers into those houses while welcoming a new group of educators into the duplexes.

It’s common for Lee County teachers to commute from nearby towns, but Marianna Mayor Ora Stevens, a retired educator, said teachers ought to live in the community where they work. That’s difficult, she acknowledged, because there isn’t enough housing in Marianna, in part, because the town has lost all its industry.

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Sen. Reginald Murdock, a Democrat from Marianna, said “for the good of the whole,” it’s important to invest in smaller towns that don’t have the economic base of larger cities.

“A community like this may not ever have the thriving, robust economics of a Northwest Arkansas, so therefore we’ll always need those programs to help supplement these types of situations,” Murdock said. “And I think it makes sense because we all are people, taxpayers, and the best thing you could do is help your brother and sister out.”

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Stone said he’s focused on teacher recruitment because the district has academic challenges, and high-quality teachers can have a positive impact.

The Lee County School District was put under state control in 2019 after violating state standards of accreditation that require maintenance of accurate student records for graduation.

Stone said he wants to hire certified teachers who understand how to teach, but, like many Delta districts, Lee County struggles to recruit certified teachers. Stone said licensure exceptions permitted by the Arkansas Department of Education have become a useful tool in staffing classrooms.

The use of licensure exceptions has become more common statewide as districts struggle with teacher shortages. An Advocate analysis of state data found that one in 12 Arkansas educators are unlicensed or teaching outside of their certification area. The number of teachers using a licensure exception has more than doubled in the last seven years. 

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Personalized solutions

As teacher housing initiatives gain more attention in Arkansas, Stone said he’s spoken with people in Brinkley, Earle and Helena-West Helena.

In nearby Crittenden County, Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter said he’s discussed the issue with the school board, which is “very supportive,” but no specific plans are in place.

“I think districts, based on where they are and their community makeup, will have different strategies for achieving similar goals, and we’re still trying to figure out what possibly could be the best options for us,” Fenter said.

With fewer people entering the education profession and leaving earlier, Fenter said he expects more districts will consider teacher housing to increase attractiveness as they compete for talent.

The number of U.S. education students declined by about a quarter of a million between 2008 and 2020, but that decrease is leveling out, according to Education Week. Arkansas saw a 49% decline in teacher-preparation program enrollees from 2008-2021.

Fenter said teacher housing is not a new concept, noting that it was common in the 1950s and 1960s, including in Marion.

“The ironic thing about this is that sometimes we think we’re facing unprecedented, new forms of challenges when in reality some of the old solutions work best to attack those new challenges,” he said.

Fenter has spoken with Bentonville Superintendent Debbie Jones about their plan, which he called a “utopian kind of model.”

Bentonville’s proposal includes a partnership with the Excellerate Foundation, a grant-making organization that has previously worked on housing issues in Northwest Arkansas, to construct a community center and approximately 100 units for sale and lease on nine acres adjacent to Bentonville High School.

The plan received pushback at a legislative meeting in January when some lawmakers said providing housing isn’t the district’s responsibility and criticized the decision to donate district property purchased with taxpayer dollars instead of selling it.

Bentonville’s initiative recommends donating land to the Excellerate Foundation, which would lead the $25 million project. According to Axios, Excellerate would provide $5 million and $10 million would come from federal tax credits. Philanthropy and loans would support the remaining $10 million.

Arkansas’ attorney general approved the legality of the land donation for construction of affordable housing in a September opinion, but project progress halted in February when the Bentonville city council rejected a rezoning request.

Jones said she was astonished by the council’s 4-3 vote after receiving unanimous approval from the city planning commission a week earlier. She said the council’s decision was a political one, with members’ votes influenced by Moms for Liberty, a school opposition group Jones said developed during the pandemic.

“It’s the same group that is the anti-face mask, the anti-library books and this is just another opportunity to be anti,” she said. “We don’t see that group offering any solutions to projects or problems, so I was just really sad to see the city council members be swayed by the pressure.”

Gail Pianalto, a former Bentonville school board candidate who received a Moms for Liberty endorsement during her 2022 campaign, told lawmakers in January that Jones and the board had lost touch with constituents if they felt it was an “appropriate use of our hard-earned resources to give away property, i.e. education tax dollars to a nonprofit with millions of dollars in assets.”

“I would strongly question the wisdom of giving away district assets in light of the current financial uncertainties inherent in implementing LEARNS, as well as the uncertainties in our current economy,” Pianalto said.

The LEARNS Act is a sweeping education law that, among other things, increases the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and creates a voucher program that provides state funding for allowable expenses, including private-school tuition.

Jones is undeterred by the setback and said the board will discuss other opportunities at its March 12 meeting.

“It’s still a good idea,” she said. “It was in the beginning and it still is a very sound idea we plan to pursue.”

Nationwide interest

Jones said districts in other states have shown interest in Bentonville’s initiative. Kansas City officials have reached out with questions, and when Bentonville’s plan was presented at a school board conference in Dallas last month, Jones said “our room was packed.”

Housing accessibility is playing a larger role in educators’ decisions to stay in the field. According to a National Education Association report, nearly a quarter of surveyed teachers who have left the profession said housing incentives such as reduced rent, down payment assistance or reduced mortgage rates would be extremely or very important in deciding whether to return.

Districts, nonprofits and unions across the country are taking note and have formed partnerships to provide teacher housing options in places like San Francisco, Kansas City and West Virginia.

Colorado’s Eagle County School District struggles with a lack of affordable housing like Bentonville, but the issue stems from the district’s inclusion of ski resort communities like Vail and Beaver Creek.

According to a Keystone Policy Center report, Eagle County started taking steps to address the issue with the release of a 10-year housing master plan in 2020 that set a goal to build 120 employee housing units. The district’s first project, a 37-unit apartment complex near a high school, began offering some occupancy last fall.

However, Eagle County’s superintendent says in the report that 120 units falls short of the need because since the plan was drafted, housing prices doubled over the course of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resort towns became a hub for remote workers and second homeowners during the pandemic, driving up the costs of homes and exacerbating affordable housing challenges for Eagle County and nearby Roaring Fork School District, according to The Colorado Sun.

Roaring Fork tried to address the issue even earlier, using a 2015 voter-approved bond measure to finance the construction and purchase of 66 rental units. Rental rates are based on a sliding scale and revenue is helping fund another 50 housing units. However, Ben Bohmfalk, Roaring Fork chief operating officer, told The Colorado Sun it’s still not enough.

“We knew we had a challenge and we were addressing the challenge, and it felt like we were way ahead of the game and we were in good shape,” Bohmfalk said. “And now it feels like we’re way behind again.”

Matthew Miano, Eagle County School District chief communications officer, told the Advocate every incremental gain is a positive step forward, but with the “extremely high cost of living” and limited housing inventory, the district’s retention rate hovers around the state average.

Miano said tackling this issue was paramount because in addition to “exorbitant housing costs,” Colorado’s funding model for education ranks nearly last in the country.

In addition to its 37-unit apartment complex, which had 150 applicants, Miano said the district has partnered with Habitat for Humanity and hosts an internal classifieds page that shares rental opportunities, but they’re not always affordable.

“Our superintendent would prefer to fight the funding model than the housing problem and has worked at the state level to do just that,” he said. “Until we can fully fund schools across the state, all districts will be fighting an uphill battle.”

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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