To Retain Teachers, Big Sky School District Builds Affordable, On-Site Housing

Jul 12, 2019

Public schools in Big Sky are losing teachers because their salaries can’t keep up with the median sale price for a single-family house, which currently sits at $1 million. A new partnership to bring affordable, on-site housing to the school district is trying to change that.

Behind Big Sky’s high school, a group of people walk through the tall grass to an area marked by sticks with pink and orange flags. Each person grabs a shovel that’s been spray painted gold for the groundbreaking ceremony.

They’re standing at the future site of two triplexes — one to be completed this November and the other in 2020. Teachers will be able to rent units at 30 percent of their gross monthly income, which is considered affordable housing. 

Whitney Littman is the vice chair of the school board. She says it’s really hard for teachers and staff to find affordable housing in Big Sky.

“We’re in a rural area, but we’re also a resort district. And so our teachers are competing with people who are working for the resorts and people who are coming to vacation. So it’s been a real challenge to find the space for them, and they’re dedicated to their quest and passion to be educators, and so we want to support that,” says Littman.

Littman says renting a room in a house with other working professionals is around $1,000 a month. As a result, about one-third of the teachers and staff commute, mostly from Bozeman and Belgrade. 

Marlo Mitchem, the school district’s IB curriculum coordinator, is one of them. 

“It’s generally 35-40 minutes, but it depends on the weather, as you can imagine,” says Mitchem.

She says her commute from Bozeman is a lot longer when there’s snow or ice on the winding, two-lane highway.

Rachel Cramer: Are you looking for an option here in Big Sky so that you don’t have to commute?

Marlo Mitchem: I think everybody’s always exploring those options because the commute is difficult for everybody who does it. So this is certainly one path to alleviate that additional stress that people might feel.

Mitchem says she is interested in the possibility of living in one of the triplexes but wants to support what’s in the best interest of the school district.

Superintendent Dustin Shipman says the school district is still trying to figure out the selection process for the teachers who want to live in the units.

He says recruiting and retaining teachers is a top priority. The school district’s number of students has grown rapidly — almost 100 percent over the last decade. The new elementary built four years ago is almost at full capacity.

“Teachers want to work in this district. It’s a beautiful place to live. As you can see, we have an extremely supportive community. Kids are highly accomplished. So our candidate pools are very deep. However, we probably lose one-to-three number one choices for each position every year,” says Shipman.

He says many of the candidates decide to go to other school districts once they realize housing options are limited in and around Big Sky.

“We know the shelf-life of a commuter on-average is three-to-five years. So we think it’s going to change that. People won’t have to commute, but it’s also going to change the experience for those who are living in the community who are thinking about leaving because of high rent prices,” says Shipman.

Shipman says he came up with the idea of offering teacher housing when he met David Magistrelli, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley, last fall.

Magistrelli says the biggest issue with affordable housing is the cost of land.

“The school has the land. We have the expertise in building, and we bring the volunteers to the job site to do the construction,” says Magistrelli.

Habitat for Humanity is able to purchase materials below market rates, which also helps keep construction costs low. The triplexes are funded with a community supported levy and resort tax. 

Magistrelli says the construction for the first triplex is about six weeks behind schedule. He says some of the neighbors in the home owners association were concerned the triplexes would obstruct their view and didn’t like some of the design elements. So the project leaders had to go back to the architecture firm and make some changes — like a berm along the side of the road so it’s harder to see the triplexes.

“We’re working with the HOA and architectural review firm to meet all their expectations and approvals,” says Magistrelli, who hopes teachers can move into the first triplex by Thanksgiving.