Rent cost, no contract muddle ‘village’

WINNSBORO – Taxpayer money, not previously mentioned by the Fairfield County School District Foundation, will help subsidize a ‘teacher village,’ a proposed residential development intended to attract and retain teachers in the District, should the plan move forward.

Under questioning by Council members, Foundation and District officials also confirmed that they do not yet have a contract, executed or proposed, with the village investor. That did not sit well with some Council members who are being asked to approve a multi-county park agreement as well as a seven-year tax refund benefiting the investor.

In multiple public and private pitches, Superintendent Dr. J. R. Green and Fairfield School District Education Foundation Chairman Sue Rex have said first priority for the housing would go to teachers, who would pay between $600 – $900 a month to rent the homes, which are between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet.

District office staff, followed by first responders, could also be allowed to live in the community. After that, others in the community could be accepted as renters.

During County Council questioning on Monday night, however, it was learned that actual rental fees would range from $900 – $1,300, not $600 – $900 a month.

“I’m interested in how you plan to rent these houses for no more than $600 to $900 a month. It seems low for what the tenants would be getting based on the square footage,” Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas said.

“How will the houses be rented for rates this low?” Douglas asked. “Is it possible the school district will be subsidizing the rental fees?”

Green answered in the affirmative. He said a proviso in the state budget includes funds that school districts can use to recruit teachers. The district would have the ability, Green said, to subsidize each home up to $300 per month, for a total of $108,000 of District subsidies each year.

“We plan to utilize our funding to help reduce the rental rates,” Green said. “We will be supplementing those rates with that retention and recruitment funding. They are looking for a school district to do some innovative things with those funds.”

State lawmakers inserted the proviso that Green referenced into the 2016 state budget, with funding going to the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement, or CERRA, legislative records show.

CERRA received $1.5 million in 2016. Since then, the appropriation has zoomed to $9.5 million in 2017 and 2018, according to CERRA’s 2017-2018 annual report.

Per the proviso, CERRA’s job is to help districts with teacher turnover of 11 percent or more over the past 5 years to boost teacher recruitment and retention. Fairfield County is among those districts.

In 2017-2018, CERRA spent $12.97 million on its teacher recruitment program, accounting for a majority of its $18.95 million in total expenditures, its annual report states. Fairfield County School District received the third highest allotment, totaling close to $738,000, of all districts drawing from the fund.

Council Chairman Billy Smith asked Green if the proviso money is permanent or if it might not be continued in the future, citing the State Legislature’s budgeting discretion. Green suggested the proviso could be built into the state budget after, perhaps, three or four years, but that is no guarantee.

Council member response to the teacher village varied during Monday night’s meeting.

Councilman Douglas Pauley asked several questions, including whether teachers living elsewhere in the county would receive the $300 rent subsidy as well. Green said they would not.

Pauley also asked about whether the district has looked at other builders or financiers.

Green said they had not. He also said Gorelick is willing to cover the $3.6 million in construction costs, and had the ability to choose the builder on their own.

Green went on to repeat a district talking point that, in addition to recruiting teachers, the village would spur economic development.

Green said Fairfield was the first District to be implementing this kind of teacher housing project and he wanted to have it ready to go by the start of the 2019 school year. He said other districts are beginning to look into doing something similar.

While council members generally praised the District for thinking creatively about ways to recruit and retain teachers, Smith stated that Council would need more documentation and specifics about the project before taking any votes.

As proposed, the Fairfield County “teacher village” would be built on 11 acres of land the district owns behind the district office off U.S. 321 Bypass in Winnsboro. There are tentative plans for a second phase on the other 11 acres.

Rex, the foundation’s director, emphasized that the multi-county business park must be approved by the County to move the project forward.

“We want to put together a template that works so beautifully that the school district, foundation, the county council, the private investors can work together to put this project into place and make it successful,” Rex said.

Before moving forward, the district also must seek approval from the Town of Winnsboro to rezone the teacher village property, a process that could take up to six weeks.

Councilman Dan Ruff said he’s encouraged by the teacher village’s possibilities.

“I want to commend you and the foundation for your creative thinking in this process,” Ruff said. “I think it is fantastic and I hope it works out.”

Comments

  1. K Reynolds says

    If the intent is to attract teachers to Fairfield County then pay them more in salary or offset their student loan debt. This could be for all teachers .There are houses for sale in the county now and that’s not attracting them here. With Sandhills and Killian Road options for housing, shopping, entertainment and eating close by no one is going to choose this proposed village. On one hand you’re proposing to give them a tax break to live here and on another you’re ultimately gonna ask them as taxpayers to pay more. This has the makings of a taxpayer burden and an expensive one at that. Why not look at an option to pay down teacher student loans in trade for time served teaching in Fairfield County ? If desirable rental options are limited look at creative loft apartment options in collaboration with the renovation of Mt Zion. That might be an ideal way to start small and see if there is true interest.I believe there is ample square footage to make a creative “pilot” option possible.

  2. R. Gee says

    Our school system does NOT need to engage in subsidized housing. SO many complications and COST with filling them, maintaining them, managing them . Pay what is needed to get and keep qualified teachers. No more, no less; that is the mantra of successful business-hiring processes. In this scenario, some teachers would benefit, most would not. So how would the ‘have vs. have nots’ be decided upon? Other school districts have not opted for this because it is unmanageable. It is kin to old-style ‘mill villages’. They failed and are an obsolete concept. And why? I expect teachers would prefer to select their own housing based on their preferences, needs, desires rather than be located in a segregated space. Our tax base is already ridiculously high for the (lack of) support available in this county. We do not need to add to our tax burden or create something that will knowingly increase our tax burden in the future. What cost REDUCTIONS are Council working on? ‘Would spur economic development?’ It is folly to think that any development will occur as a result of this approach. I oppose this.

  3. B.Wagner says

    Just as HUD offers purchase subsidies, why not use CERRA or similar funding to provide rent subsidies for teachers vs. the school district becoming a landlord? Those teachers then may live where they choose — as long as it is within Fairfield County.

    Why not purchase houses that are currently on the market, allowing (and encouraging) these new teachers to be immersed in the community in which teach? Test the concept that lack of available housing is the real issue before investing millions of dollars.

    There are many factors that go into employees’ decisions to stay or leave. Attracting new teachers is one thing; retaining them is another challenge entirely. How long would they be able or desire to rent vs. own? If they decide to stay and buy their own house, can we still offer them attractive options? When they decide to get out of the village, where will they go? Over the line to another county?
    If the development does not work as planned, what will happen to the homes? Would all taxpayers have the option to purchase?

    Planning needs to include contingencies for the many “what ifs” that are just starting to come to light.
    Still a lot of unanswered questions, it seems.

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