San Jose teacher housing a hot topic at SJUSD meeting

    As the housing crisis intensifies, the San José Unified School District is pushing a plan to build new “teacher housing” as a means to offer district employees below-market rate homes — but not everyone is on board.

    Residents, teachers and education advocates packed a SJUSD board meeting Thursday to debate the proposal to move existing schools to make way for affordable teacher housing. Supporters said it offers a lifeline for Silicon Valley’s struggling educators while opponents called it “outrageously inefficient.”

    A list of district properties was submitted to the board in September as part of a “Master Plan for San José Unified Properties.” The nine schools include Walter L. Bachordt Elementary School, Peter Burnett Middle School, Selma Olinder Elementary School, Gardner Elementary School, River Glen K-8 School, Second Start-Pine Hill Non-Public School, Bret Harte Middle School and Leland High School. The board on Thursday mulled the possibility of moving a few schools to repurpose the land for housing developments for lower income families working for the district — like teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and more.

    Specifically, administrators are looking to relocate Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School in Almaden Valley, one of the most affluent enclaves of San Jose.

    “I encourage you to continue the course,” said Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San José Teachers Association. He stood as a staunch supporter of the initiative and asked the board to move forward with the Master Plan.

    Bernhardt told San José Spotlight that, like many of his colleagues, he worries teachers leaving San José to work elsewhere will continue to harm the quality of life and education in the school district.

    “We cannot sustain that trend,” Bernhardt said. “I think that something has to be done.”

    But some Almaden Valley residents on Thursday pushed back against moving two high-performing schools to build affordable homes, including Greg Braley, an Almaden parent and staunch opposer of the plan.

    Braley in November launched a petition to remove Bret Harte and Leland from the list. His petition calls the Master Plan a “very bad option” for reasons including harm to home values, traffic worries and pedestrian safety walking to school in the area.

    “As residents of the Almaden Valley neighborhood, we are strongly opposed to San Jose Unified School District’s consideration of relocating Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School in order to build low cost employee housing units,” the petition says.

    The petition drew more than 6,500 signatures.

    Stephen McMahon, the district’s deputy superintendent, asked the board to consider the plan as it moves forward to another board session later in the year. No vote or motion was necessary Thursday, as the agenda item was just an update on the Master Plan.

    When asked by board president Kimberly Meek what interim options there are for housing teachers with more immediacy, McMahon said it would not be the best use of already limited district funds. Instead, McMahon said the next step is to narrow the list to a smaller number of preferred locations and move ahead.

    “We’re looking at the best way to attract and retain teachers,” he said.

    With the ability to offer below-market rate housing for district faculty, McMahon said that gives the district the ability to price-out the relatively cheaper areas outside of San José, offering a major tool in teacher retention.

    Johanna Latz, a special education teacher for Schallenberger Elementary School, said she’s all too familiar with the exodus of teachers and faculty in the district, having experienced high turnover in her department.

    Supporting teacher housing is something Latz said could help build stability in district employees, specifically in those who struggle to make ends meet for those working two or more jobs just to stay in education.

    “Everybody deserves to work one job, without needing long commutes,” Latz said.

    While Latz lives in a house of her own, she says it’s because she bought it in 1999 for about $250,000, whereas now it would be worth about $1 million — something neither she, nor her many colleagues, would be able to afford today.

    Latz said with skyrocketing housing costs amidst a housing crisis in the Bay Area, a “coming tsunami of rent increases” is going to further drain the pool of district employees and make matters worse for those already trying to cope financially.

    Teacher housing, she said, would help.

    “It could be one way to encourage people to be teachers,” she said. “It’s hard for us to compete. This would make us more competitive.”

    Board vice president Teresa Castellanos offered her support of moving forward while the Bay Area continues to combat a housing crisis.

    “I know that families are suffering a lot. I know that people are renting garages without bathrooms and no kitchens for $2,500 in the low-income areas,” Castellanos said. “I know that they compete with landlords who would rather rent to six students who each share a room and pay $1,000 to $1,500 each and then that three bedroom house is being rented for $6,000 to $8,000 in downtown San Jose.”

    Low income families simply cannot compete, she said.

    “Until the state of California decides to do something about public education, we’re going to be in this constant struggle,” Castellanos said. “It is really hard to get up here and make constant budget decisions knowing that you cannot add any more to the pot and that the quality is going down because the cost is going up.”

    Acknowledging the realities the district faces with underfunding and understaffing, Castellanos said “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

    Contact Kyle Martin at [email protected] or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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