© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bentonville School District moves forward with attainable housing

Kelly Carlson ran for school board after his daughter’s kindergarten year in the Bentonville School District.

“Her first-year teacher that was hired two weeks before school started," Carlson said. "She went into the classroom that was used as a storage room and was just setting it up. The impact that she had on my daughter's education as she launched into the school system was so meaningful to my family that that's what got me engaged in as a school board member.”
He first ran for school board in 2019 and now serves as the board president. And he says one of his top priorities for the school is striving for all students to have that same kind of impactful experience with their teachers. Debbie Jones is the superintendent of Bentonville Schools, and said that recruiting the best teachers to come to her schools is paramount.

“When I made job offers to personnel and they accepted the offers … and then they looked at housing and had to decline the offer. And I thought this is real. This is a real problem. It's becoming a problem now, but it's only going to increase in the future."

Jones has no illusions about the city.

“We are the most expensive place to live," Jones said. "We have to be the highest paying [district] and the board has supported the efforts in increasing our wages. And it's not just teachers; it's bus drivers, it's our custodial services and our cafeteria services. Because every single one of those services has to be present for us to provide services to families where it doesn't function.

“You know, it really became clear to me during the pandemic and I know everyone had this experience. You want to go get something to eat somewhere and you realize, oh, they're closed. They're closed because they don't have staff. Schools can't do that. We have to be open. We have to run buses. We have to pick up children. We have to do that safely. And so, we have to seek solutions to be able to hire enough staff to run our district.”

Bentonville is consistently one of the highest-paying school districts in the state. Last year, they had a 6.5% increase in pay. And yet, for teachers and support staff, it’s still challenging to find a place to live within Bentonville. Jones said they didn’t have a solution at first, just a problem. So, she went to a go-to partner of theirs: Excellerate Foundation.

“In the past when I've been faced with a challenge from a staff member if they can't make their rent cost or they had some catastrophe in their family," Jones said, "and they may need counseling or something like that, all I could do was say, ‘Well you have this for your insurance,’ until we partnered with Excellerate on the HARK. They administer that. It could be paying for extra schooling or something like that, if a staff member has a need, they can now go through Excellerate for the HARK program. And they've been very diligent every year about giving me direct feedback. ‘This is how many of your staff we serve this year.’ So it has been really an employee benefit program for me.”

She approached Excellerate with this new problem, and together they landed on a novel concept: build affordable housing on school property. The school district would donate 9 acres of land, 6 of which can be developed into a few different housing options.

“60 apartments in the middle which are low-income housing, which would have to be open based upon income because Low Income Housing Tax Credit funds would be used to build that. And then 40 ther cottages or two-bedroom houses. And this is what's really unique and what I love about this program: 20 of those cottages are rental — probably in the range of $1,000 — well below market value. The other 20 are a Shared Equity Program, because we want teachers to live in our community permanently. And so it's trying to help them get that savings for the down payment. They’ll live five years in the home and then they need to move on, but then they would walk away with a $50,000 check because they've paid towards the principal and the interest. And so that's the shared equity piece of that. While it may seem novel to us, it really has been proven to be a successful program and many other districts are looking at it across the nation.”

 State Senator Joshua Bryant has constituents inside the school district, and he said they first reached out to him shortly after a presentation was brought to the school board.

“They just wanted me to be aware that the school system was considering this as an option to conquer the challenge of housing for Northwest Arkansas.” 

When looking at the things he liked and the things that made him apprehensive, Senator Bryant says it’s mostly the latter for him.

“Here we have a school that is going to get into the business of affordable housing," Sen. Bryant said. "And that kind of concerns me — not from the business aspect that ,there's plenty of developers that are also competing in that market for business — but that these are education dollars. I honestly didn't think it'd be legal that a school district could donate land — which has a value of commodity value — to donate it to a nonprofit for the purpose of housing. I thought it had to stay just in education.”

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin was asked about the legality of this back in September. He wrote in an opinion that yes, it was legal for a school district to donate real property for these purposes. Of course, Senator Bryant knows that to be the case now, but he said he’s still leery of the plan.

“I think it still falls back to the fact that this is land that was bought for the purposes of education," Sen. Bryant said. "And if we're going to move outside of the purpose of education, are we going to do so in a manner that still supports education and what the tax dollars are meant to support? I will probably never align with using education dollars for housing, but I think it's important that we took it to and continue to take it to Little Rock to make sure that the citizens of Arkansas, try to wrap their head around if they want education dollars used for affordable housing.”

Senator Bryant brought this to the House and Senate Education committees recently, and legislators were concerned. Representative Stephen Meeks of Greenbrier said, "If we had to vote to approve this, I'd be a hard 'no' on this.” Representative Ron McNair of Harrison said, “Because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should do something.
School board president Kelly Carlson disagrees.

“From my standpoint, everybody's entitled to their opinion," Carlson said, "but unless you're living in Northwest Arkansas and shoulder to shoulder with our staff, with our parents and our kids, that opinion has a little less validity in this case. I think if this is the right thing to do, we should do it. And that's what Dr. Jones and her team brought to the board and the board voted on it because we all thought it was the right thing to do. It's going to have a positive impact to our staff, and ultimately our district.”

Another concern Senator Bryant raises is around budget allocation. 

“When that revenue stream went up for the school district," Sen. Bryant said, "because the area is so attractive and the market is so hot right now, and that revenue went up $10 million, because they do that in these school districts. I know that counties alone, their budgets have gone up tremendously. And they're making those choices to build nicer buildings, to build nice service sporting facilities, instead of accommodating the wages for their teachers. They look at wages as a recurring cost and look it as a building as a one-time expense with some maintenance. And so those boards and those governing bodies are making those decisions to do that. And I would say the more that we let the free market play out, the more those boards will realize hey, this is no longer a living wage. We have to increase it 20-30%.”

Carlson notes that salaries are far and away the largest line-item expense in the district’s budget.

“About 75% of that is personnel expense," Carlson said. "So, there's not a lot of room to make cuts. And when you look back to Northwest Arkansas and the Bentonville community, the Bentonville school district’s average home price is about $450,000. The starting salary for teachers is $50,000 now which is great, and that means they can afford about a $200,000 home. So, there's not homes that they can afford. But that's not uncommon when you come out of school that you can't go out and buy a house, I completely get that and most of the board understands that as well. But there's been studies done that it takes teachers three times as long as save up for a down payment. So if you're having to save a 20% down payment on a $450,000 house, that's $90,000.

Jones was also quick to point out that a teacher’s boss will not also be their landlord.

“We are not experts in running property," Jones said. "Excellerate will do that. Once we've developed the agreement, we have the deed restrictions, and so we have all of the rules set up, then they run the program and all they will do is verify this staff member is employed with your school district. And so we do have to verify that. Other than that, it is a management company that runs a property.

Jones said she’s heard from other districts within Arkansas who are interested in doing this kind of thing. I asked if she considers herself a trailblazer and what kind of advice she would give other superintendents. 

“My friend in Marianna called and said, ‘How do we get this?’ And I said, ‘Well, you need a foundation that serves your needs in your area.’ We realize we're very fortunate in having that. When you talk about being trailblazers. We share everything — including our lessons learned along the way — because the bottom line is the better students perform, then the better Arkansas is, and we really are all in this together. We want to support districts as much as we can, because many times we have to reach out to them and ask for advice. This definitely is a unified effort.”

The Bentonville School board voted in November to approve the plan by a vote of 5-1. Details on when construction and move-in will begin are still to be determined.

Stay Connected
Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
Related Content