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Snow Job

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With its breathtaking views, world-renowned ski resorts, and safe, well-equipped schools, Aspen, Colo., is a dream place to live and work for many teachers. But those who follow their hearts to Aspen are finding that paradise has its complications.

They soon learn that it's not just the quaint, Victorian houses that are beyond their means but also the most basic apartments. Half the candidates for teaching positions withdraw their applications once they discover the high cost of living. "We can't pay enough to make it worth their while financially," says Aspen superintendent Tom Farrell. The starting salary for a new teacher in the 1,250-student district is $24,675—one of the highest in the state—but one-bedroom apartments start at around $2,000 a month. "If you were the luckiest person in the world," Farrell says, "you might find something for $1,000 a month."

And it's not just Aspen. Thanks largely to a booming economy, Colorado's population climbed to 3.9 million in 1997—an 18.5 percent increase since 1990. And as more people have come to the state, housing prices have soared, leaving many teachers scrambling to find affordable places to live. "This is getting to be a very serious problem in Colorado ski country, but it is also a problem in the Denver metro area as well," says Douglas Hartman, president of the Colorado Federation of Teachers. Many teachers, he says, commute up to 60 miles each way because they can't afford to live in the areas where they work.

The average home price in the six-county metropolitan area including Denver has reached a new high: about $165,000, up 85 percent from $89,000 in 1991. Rental housing is becoming scarce, particularly in the downtown area.

The housing problem gets worse in the resort towns. In tony ski communities such as Aspen and Vail, most beginning teachers share housing or commute from other towns.

The costs in some areas have led to large turnovers in staff and headaches for teachers and administrators. Some districts are exploring ways to ease the housing crunch. In Aspen, school officials are working with a local bank to help finance the construction of about 10 duplexes. Under a plan that is still being hashed out, teachers would be able to buy the units for about $130,000 to $180,000, Farrell says. The district has also bought several apartments to rent to new teachers and administrators.

Phil Fox, associate director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, is pitching a similar idea to several Colorado-based businesses. Under the plan, a company would build low-rent apartment buildings for teachers on school property. The company would receive a federal tax credit for its investment. And once a building pays for itself through rent income, the company could donate the apartments to the district and receive another tax break.

Some Colorado administrators worry that the high cost of living is sinking morale among teachers, especially those who can't afford to live in the communities where they teach. "They're respected enough to teach the children of the valley, but they can't afford to live here," says Fred Wall, superintendent of the 5,000-student Roaring Forks district, about 40 miles from Aspen.

Wall experienced the housing shortage firsthand last year when he moved to Glenwood Springs from Colorado Springs. He found that a house in his new location comparable to the one he'd left behind would cost $100,000 more.

Roaring Forks recently built three new schools and enlarged three existing ones. Though the district did not have a shortage of applicants for its new teaching slots, many turned down offers, says Jim Phillips, a local principal. "Everybody wants to come live here until they find out how much it costs."

Kirsten Gray, a 26-year-old 8th grade teacher in Glenwood Springs, part of the Roaring Forks district, considers herself lucky. She and a friend pay $844 a month for what she describes as a shabby but relatively large four-room apartment above an older house in the resort town. "At this point, there's no way I can ever buy a house," she says.

One of her colleagues, 25-year-old Kevin Bernot, lives with three others in a $1,200-per-month townhouse in Carbondale, a lower-priced area about 15 miles from Glenwood Springs. For Bernot, living near the ski slopes is worth the sacrifice. "I wanted to stay here because of the activities and the scenery," he says. What's more, "the people are much nicer."

—Joetta L. Sack

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