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School district looks at housing as teacher draw
Under one plan, the district would donate land to build town homes for some employees.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 7, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - Luring new teachers to work in Pasco County schools can be tough, superintendent Heather Fiorentino says, with housing costs rising faster than the district can increase salaries.
To make the effort easier, the school district is looking into how it can provide affordable housing for some employees, Fiorentino told the School Board on Tuesday.
Fiorentino wants the district to participate in the state's year-old Community Workforce Housing Innovation Pilot Program, which puts millions of dollars into public-private partnerships that develop affordable housing for "essential" employees - including schoolteachers and support personnel.
The school district would donate 4 acres of land adjacent to Marlowe Elementary, where developers then would build 35 to 40 low-cost town homes for school employees. The property would represent its 15 percent local match to qualify for the competitive grant, which can be worth as much as $5-million per award.
"This is, I think, a win-win for the district," Fiorentino said.
The district would partner with PDC Affordable Housing of St. Petersburg and General Home Development of Dade City. The concept is based on the Westshore Landings housing project in Tampa.
"The best reason to do this is to help the largest number of working families find adequate housing close to their jobs," PDC partner Nick Pavonetti said. "We feel like we have a very good chance to win."
Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, welcomed the idea of helping teachers and other school employees find homes they can afford. With other debts, property taxes, home insurance and regular costs of daily living, she said, finding homes within their salary range can be difficult.
The median home for the Tampa area, which includes much of Pasco County, is about $229,900. To comfortably afford a 6.5 percent 30-year fixed-rate mortgage on that home, with about $500 in other monthly debt, lenders suggest a person would have to earn about $75,000 a year.
The average Pasco teacher salary for 2006-07 was $40,406, according to the Florida Department of Education.
"It's very hard on one income to afford housing, especially in some areas of our county," Webb said.
She did not see the affordable housing concept necessarily as the best answer, though.
"I'll be truthful with you. What I think our employees want is decent salaries that allow them to find their own housing," said Webb, who noted that the union and district have yet to settle this year's contract terms.
Webb's sentiment mirrors that of other educators around the state and country, where the idea of affordable housing for teachers is gaining strength. Many have said they consider the concept as a short-term solution, noting that, especially in growing districts such as Pasco, there's no way to provide enough affordable housing for the ever growing number of teachers.
Pavonetti, who preferred the term "work force housing" to the more negative sounding "affordable housing," said the grant program leverages a relatively small amount of money - $62-million is available this year - to help a potentially larger number of people afford housing than if the state doled out the cash directly into salaries.
Other districts like idea
The Pasco district is not alone in looking into the idea. Broward County's School Board is pursuing the program, with a goal of constructing up to 300 apartments. New York City began a housing subsidy program for teachers last year. Clark County, Nev., schools also are looking at options for building low-cost housing for teachers.
Closer to home, Pavonetti said he has talked with officials at the Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts about affordable housing options for teachers, as well.
Pasco is looking at the Marlowe site in New Port Richey, as well as a smaller site in Zephyrhills.
"We're looking at some other areas too," Fiorentino said. "But this would be the first step."
She planned to give the School Board more information during a workshop Nov. 20.
Also Tuesday, the board discussed the district's 2005-06 internal accounts audit report, which included information about missing and mishandled funds at a small number of schools including Pasco and River Ridge high schools.
Board members made several suggestions to avoid future problems, most notably to require semiannual reports for high schools rather than annual ones. They also suggested audits to close out the books whenever a bookkeeper leaves a school, and recommended that the district consider unfreezing a vacant internal auditor position.
Fiorentino said she is amping up training on the handling of internal accounts. She added that the finance department is looking at three-year trends in the schools, to make sure they don't have recurring financial problems.
The board asked member Frank Parker, an accountant, to be its liaison with the administration as the district reviews and reinforces its policies and procedures.
Also, the board approved the purchase of 20 acres in Zephyrhills for a new elementary school scheduled to open in about six years.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.