More than 3,000 Collier County Public Schools instructional employees either began or continued their teaching careers last week at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
The school district offered the second-highest starting salary in Florida last year and provided teachers with three bonuses. Despite the above-average paycheck for a Florida teacher, CCPS still has 170 vacancies, while almost 40% of the district’s teachers commute from outside of Collier County.
As rents skyrocket in the area, a lack of affordable housing in the county could lead to even more teaching vacancies.
CCPS Chief Human Resources Officer Valerie Wenrich is on an internal housing board and has been monitoring the affordable housing issue for several years. “We started seeing the trend quite a few years ago, and that it’s going to get harder and harder to hire in this area,” she said.
The district has begun turning to candidates from the county who don’t need to relocate to begin their teaching careers, including local college graduates.
Tiffany Johnson was born and raised in Collier and graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2019 before becoming a teacher at Parkside Elementary School. She took advantage of stipends for CCPS supplemental positions, which offer pay boosts for positions, such as activity and club sponsors and department chairs.
“I’m team lead, so I get a stipend for that. I’m the math coach, so I get a stipend for that. I taught Saturday school and summer school just to try to help make ends meet,” Johnson said. “I feel like unless you know someone or you’re able to room with someone, it’s not even possible.”
Last year, she had to move back in with her parents, as she couldn’t afford rent. “I can’t afford $2,000 for rent by myself, it’s astronomical,” she said.
A CCPS staff member works closely with the housing community to ease rental costs for teachers with different rental properties. “We try to hook them up with roommates, we tried to find places that are willing to waive certain types of down payments, first and last [months rents] and those kinds of things for our teachers,” Wenrich said.
Through a friend, Johnson found efficiency housing, similar to a studio apartment, to live. While residing with her parents, CCPS Human Resources communicated with her and provided some options for affordable apartment living.
“I reached out to every apartment complex and asked if they did anything for teachers, and none of them did any of that, or they were already booked,” Johnson said.
Wenrich said experienced candidates have rejected employment offers with the district because they can’t find an affordable place to live.
“We have seen in the last two years where we go through the hiring process, they interview, they get offered a position and they go through all of the screening process. And then they get to the point where they’re actually going to come to work, and they still haven’t found housing,” she said.
The staffing shortage’s impact on education is something Johnson has seen firsthand, as a third-grade class at Parkside Elementary was collapsed and split into other existing classrooms.
“I think it does impact the kids because there’s too many kids in the room, and it’s hard to meet their needs,” Johnson said. “With just 18 students, it’s hard to meet every need of every student. And if you have more in your own class, it’s even harder. Even space-wise, I can’t imagine 25 fifth graders in a room.”
Shifting the focus to increasing noninstructional staff and adding guest teachers to full-time teaching positions has been a way of retaining more staff who are already established in the community.
“We want them to be viewed and respected and seen as a guest teacher, not just a substitute, but the long-term guest teachers,” CCPS Chief Communication Officer Chad Oliver said.
Despite the vacancies, Wenrich doesn’t view the lack of affordable housing affecting CCPS directly right now but acknowledges the threats to education if the issue continues.
“[In the future] there may be courses that we cannot offer to students. It wouldn’t be your core courses, but it would be mostly at our middle and high school where we do some accelerated courses or some unique courses in the foreign language areas that we may struggle to hire or even in career and technical education,” Wenrich said. “Activities may suffer in the next few years, in the sense of after school activities and sporting events and the arts, which is not a [school board] desire. That has been a focus of Collier County, to bring those unique activities to our students. We believe that when students are well rounded, not just academically but within the fine arts and athletics, they excel as students in the future. So that would be pushed off for many years, that would be probably a last and final resort.”
For teachers, such as Johnson, and other essential employees, the battle between living affordably and wanting to be part of the Collier County community is becoming an unfortunate reality.
“I have a friend who is a teacher in Orlando, and she makes less money than I do, but the housing situation is also different,” Johnson said. “So, I feel it’s kind of picking your evils in a way. This is a higher paying job, but it’s also more money going out for bills. I think just as an industry as a whole, teaching doesn’t have a lot of income base. So, for me, it was kind of just the reality. No matter where I really go, it’s probably just going be a struggle.”