Resort-Town Teachers Pay a Price for Location

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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 decide to follow their hearts to Aspen are finding that paradise has its complications. Many of the teachers who have gone there have learned it's not only the quaint, Victorian houses, set close to the brick-paved streets, that are beyond their means. Even the most basic apartments are out of the price range of the typical teacher.

Half the candidates for teaching positions in Aspen withdraw their applications once they discover the high cost of living, Superintendent Tom Farrell said in a recent interview.

"We can't pay enough to make it worth their while financially," he said. The starting salary for a new teacher graduate in the 1,250-student district is $24,675--one of the highest in the state--but one-bedroom apartments often rent for at least $2,000 a month. "If you were the luckiest person in the world, you might find something for $1,000 a month," Mr. Farrell said.

Housing prices throughout Colorado are rising dramatically, leaving many teachers and other school employees scrambling to find affordable places to live. The costs in some areas have led to large turnovers in staff and headaches for teachers and administrators.

The situation is spurring efforts in Aspen and elsewhere in Colorado to provide reasonably priced housing for school employees.

"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," said Douglas B. Hartman, the president of the Colorado Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Many teachers commute up to 60 miles each way because they can't afford to live in the areas where they work, Mr. Hartman said.

Exploring Alternatives

Housing and rental prices, as well as the state population, have soared in Colorado in recent years, thanks in large part to a booming economy. The population rose from 3.29 million in 1990 to 3.9 million in 1997, an increase of 18.5 percent, and is projected to reach 4.1 million in 2000.

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, according to the Denver Chamber of Commerce. And rental housing is becoming scarce, particularly in the downtown area, said spokeswoman Staci Busby.

The housing problem escalates in the resort towns.

In tony ski-resort communities such as Aspen and Vail, most beginning teachers share housing or commute from other towns.

School officials in Aspen, where prices for single-family houses often start at $1 million, are working with a local bank to help finance the construction of about 10 duplexes starting early this year. Under a plan that is still being hashed out, teachers would be able buy the unitsfor about $130,000 to $180,000, Mr. Farrell said. The district has also bought several apartments to rent to new teachers and administrators.

Phil Fox, the associate director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, has a similar idea. He's pitched a plan to several Colorado-based companies under which they would build low-rent apartment buildings for teachers on school property. The companies would receive a federal tax credit for their investment. And, Mr. Fox added, once a building has paid for itself through rent income, the owner-company could donate the building to the district and receive another tax break.

Mr. Fox said he has begun negotiations with a Fortune 500 company and hopes to have a project under construction later this year.

Concern for Morale

Some Colorado administrators worry that the high cost of living is sinking their teachers' morale, especially for 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," said Fred A. Wall, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Roaring Fork district, about 40 miles northwest of Aspen.

Mr. Wall experienced the housing crunch first-hand last year when he moved to Glenwood Springs from Colorado Springs. He found that a house comparable to the one that he had owned in Colorado Springs would cost $100,000 more in his new location.

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

Mr. Farrell, the Aspen schools chief, said he has lost not only leading job candidates, but current staff members as well.

The district's technology coordinator, Patty Goodson, recently resigned, mainly because of the high cost of living.

She said in an interview that she and her family had not found suitable housing since moving to Aspen three years ago, and had decided to return to the Denver area, where they can afford to buy a house.

The 950,000-member AFT presses for higher teacher pay in areas that have unusually high costs of living, said spokeswoman Janet Bass.

Local affiliates of the 2.2 million-member National Education Association often give new teachers leads on affordable apartments in high-cost areas, said spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons.

Worth the Sacrifice

In Colorado, teachers' salaries have not kept pace with the rapid increases in housing costs, several local school officials said. Statewide, the average teaching salary was $36,364 in 1996. In Aspen, the average was $43,476 in 1997, according to district officials.

Kirsten Gray, 26, an 8th grade teacher in Glenwood Springs in 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 said.

Her colleague Kevin Bernot, 25, shares a $1,200-per-month, three-bedroom townhouse in Carbondale, a lower-priced area about 15 miles away from Glenwood Springs, with three other roommates.

He can pay his bills, but he's considering a second job to help build his savings.

Living near the ski slopes is worth the sacrifice, Mr. Bernot said. "I wanted to stay here because of the activities and the scenery, and the people are much nicer."

In the resort areas, where snow blankets the Rocky Mountains up to eight months a year, any commute can become treacherous, however.

"The conditions are bad ... [and] the terrain is very difficult," Mr. Hartman of the state teachers' union said. "It is a big deal going over a 12,000-foot pass in the middle of winter."

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