Faced with significant turnover of teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and support staff, every one of the Outer Cape’s schools is feeling the effects of Cape Cod’s year-round housing shortage.
When talking with promising applicants, “one of the first things we ask is ‘Do you have housing?’ ” said Gerry Goyette, superintendent of Provincetown International Baccalaureate Schools. “Because that is the first concern.”
“If they don’t have housing here, it’s a really hard sell,” said Brooke Clenchy, superintendent of the Nauset Regional School District, which still has a number of vacancies for the school year ahead with opening day for staff on Sept. 5 and day one for grades K-12 on Sept. 7.
At Truro Central School, many teachers have been forced to find housing up Cape, said Supt. Stephanie Costigan. Some now come from as far away as Sandwich, she said.
“I’m concerned about finding great new hires,” said Nauset High teacher Amy Kandall. She said the Cape used to be a sought-after destination for teachers. “We would get really qualified people here because it’s a big draw to live in such a beautiful place.”
There’s been another shift, too. Once teachers are hired, retaining them can be difficult because of the cost of housing. Nauset Regional Middle School teacher Sean Kirouac said the school, which is in Orleans, recently hired a couple of teachers who quickly realized they couldn’t afford to live anywhere nearby. They left.
Kirouac described one colleague who is currently living in an apartment in her parent’s garage and is uncertain of her ability to ever find a place for herself. “She is really struggling with whether it is feasible for her to stay here,” he said. Losing her “would be devastating to the Nauset community,” he said.
Longtime residents feel the pull to move away for a different housing-related reason. Some turnover has come when school employees who have owned a home on the Cape and, seeing its high value, have sold and moved away, Clenchy said.
“You have this constant churn of people, and that’s not healthy for any organization,” said Clenchy. “You really need that stability of people committed and dedicated to the purpose.”
Kirouac said the turnover in staff is particularly difficult for students. “They thrive on consistency and rules and protocol,” he said. “When we constantly have a rotating staff and a rotating administration, kids don’t do well with it.”
The challenge of hiring and retaining employees is even harder when it comes to nonteaching staff. Chris Easley, chair of the Nauset Regional School Committee, said that while Nauset has done well filling open teacher positions — it filled all of the 74 positions that turned over before last school year — it has had a lot more difficulty getting applications for administrative positions.
And hiring other staff, like custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, who make less than teachers and administrators, is particularly difficult.
“We just can’t get them,” said Clenchy. “One of our positions at the high school is for groundskeeper. I can’t tell you how many times that position has turned over,” she said, adding that the situation is common across the district.
At Nauset, hourly wages for custodial and cafeteria staff range from $15 to $29 depending on the employee’s experience. The Cape Cod Collaborative, which provides busing for the Nauset and Truro schools, pays bus drivers around $30 per hour, according to the organization’s executive director, Paul Hilton.
Julie Packard, one of Cape Cod Collaborative’s drivers for Truro Central, said that because her position is part-time, her annual pay comes to around $25,000. “That’s nothing an average family could ever live on,” she said.
Even working full-time at that wage “is not enough to cut it to live here,” Hilton said.
According to the Wellfleet Housing website (created by the Wellfleet Affordable Housing Trust, the Wellfleet Housing Authority, and the Local Housing Partnership), the annual income required to buy a median-priced home in Wellfleet is $123,000, which is around $60 per hour for an individual full-time employee.
Hilton said the turnover rate of bus drivers used to be around 3 to 5 percent per year. Now it’s between 10 and 20 percent, and at any given time the organization could hire up to 20 more drivers if there were enough applicants, he said.
“Thirty years ago, people got trained and had to wait to get assigned a route,” said Hilton. “Now, we’re waiting for people to get licensed because we already have a route that needs to be covered.” The bus driver shortage has forced schools to cut extracurricular trips and merge daily bus routes, which causes students to be on the bus for longer, he said.
In addition to vacancies at the schools themselves, the staffing shortage in a variety of social services on the Cape affects students, Clenchy said. She said she was particularly concerned about the lack of mental health professionals on the Cape. “We don’t have the people to point [students] to,” she said.
The lack of housing has also affected the demographic makeup of school staff. Kirouac said the applications the school gets for teaching jobs are often from older teachers who own a second home on the Cape and are hoping to retire here. They get few applications from young people, he said.
Housing, Costigan said, is “the biggest obstacle” to efforts to diversify the school’s teaching staff. “Educators with more diverse backgrounds have expressed interest, but once they see the housing market and how much it costs, it tends to be a deterrent to them,” she said.
It’s important that students from diverse backgrounds have teachers that reflect that diversity, Kirouac said. But that is rarely the case at Outer Cape schools.
In Provincetown, for example, students of color make up about half of the school population, according to the town’s July sociodemographic survey, but the teaching staff is just about exclusively white, Goyette said.
Active community members have helped the schools get by. Goyette said Provincetown Schools has a network of people who tell the district when they hear of housing available to rent during the school year. Some homeowners especially want to help teachers, and those placements have allowed Provincetown to build a nearly full teaching staff, he said.
Kirouac said he benefitted from similar community support when he was able to buy his current house in Orleans at a price below other bids because the seller was a former teacher. But that happened only after he bounced around three apartments that were turned into short-term rentals and then, when trying to buy, lost four bids to cash-only offers.
More systemic solutions, such as reserving units of affordable housing for educators or offering subsidies to help teachers buy homes — which usually limits how much they can later sell the house for — are both difficult to implement and imperfect, Easley said. They don’t allow for the financial model teachers have traditionally followed, in which they buy a house and build equity while staying in the school system for a long period, he said. “There isn’t any good answer,” he said.
People working at the schools know that they are not the only ones who need housing. “It’s a systemic issue,” Goyette said. “There’s a need for housing across the board. I don’t think teachers are any more special.”
The future promises more challenges, Easley said. As older employees continue to retire, a true staffing crisis is on the horizon, he said.
“There is no doubt it is going to come, and it is going to get us good,” said Easley. “We haven’t taken the first baby steps to begin addressing it.”