For a small rural Texas town, the solution to a teacher shortage is a motel – The 74

Every day after work, veteran English teacher Staci Ely pulls into the parking lot of the Spanish Trail Lodge in Fort Stockton, a small town in far west Texas.

She parks right outside her door in the automobile-style hotel and settles into a small, newly renovated room with an ensuite bathroom, saltillo tile floors, a mini-fridge, and Southwestern-style fixtures.

The cozy motel room is home these days and it’s one of the reasons Ely took the job with the Fort Stockton Independent School District. That and the $80,000 salary.

In order to secure a livable retirement, Ely, 54, temporarily left the spacious 800km home she built with her husband, a former professional rider who stayed put.

“He’s a cowboy and he likes to cowboy around the house,” Ely said of her husband.

She rents her room for $250 a month from the Fort Stockton School District, which purchased the motel in December 2021 for $705,000 from its budget, as part of a multi-faceted plan to recruit teachers amid chronic shortage.

Staci Ely outside her room at the district-owned Spanish Trail Lodge in Fort Stockton. (Courtesy of Staci Ely)

The plan also includes high salaries for teaching positions the district of 2,200 students needs most.

The teacher shortage in the district, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects a reality seen in many parts of the country.

“Historically speaking, teacher shortages are nothing new in rural districts,” said District Superintendent Gabriel Zamora. “But we are not fighting for teachers now.”

Lured by higher wages and low-cost housing, the district has filled all of its critical positions, said Ember Renteria, the district’s chief of staff. And, they filled them with qualified teachers, not just hot bodies. “Normally we were just looking for someone who was willing to teach,” she said. “There has been a big difference this year. If you pay them, they will come.

Zamora wasn’t in Fort Stockton when the pandemic started, but he’s still worked in the kind of very small, extremely rural district that struggles to fill niches. After years of innovation and recruitment, the pandemic has been a massive setback.

“Whatever ground we gained, we lost,” Zamora said. The shift to virtual learning and then back to blended learning has pushed many teachers past their breaking point and out of the profession. When he reviewed the workforce situation in Fort Stockton in 2021, he found that, like in most other rural districts, the pandemic had caused another “hole in the bucket”.

He arrived in Fort Stockton in June 2021 and immediately got to work figuring out how to attract more teachers to the district and how to get experienced teachers already on the payroll transferred into positions like math, English and science which are the most difficult. to fill.

Instead of being lured into electives for lack of stress, as often happens, he said, he tries to hire teachers with experience in core subjects with higher pay – up to 72 $000 for a first grade teacher, more for experienced teachers like Ely.

For the Grade 8 English teacher, it was a golden opportunity to put aside the $80,000 salary. The position is usually difficult to fill because subjects covered by state exams are usually more stressful. But the pay rise was worth it.

This is exactly what Zamora was counting on.

Dr. Gabriel Zamora (

He is no stranger to the disincentives facing the teaching profession. Starting salaries are too low to attract many college graduates, especially those with college debt. From there, most districts follow a fixed pay schedule based on years of experience. If a district follows the minimum pay scale, as many small rural schools do, it takes a teacher 20 years to reach $54,000.

He looked at the funding he had for his 180 teacher salaries this school year and figured out a way to pay them based on the district’s need to fill the position. Fort Stockton’s average teacher salary in 2021-22 was $53,000 — the state average is around $56,000 — but now, say, a first-grade teacher in a high school math class could earn around $72,500. If a seasoned teacher takes this position, they will earn even more.

But even at $70,000, Zamora said, housing prices in Fort Stockton were another major hurdle. The housing stock is mainly made up of single-family homes, many of which are older. Oil companies drilling nearby offer relatively generous housing allowances to their workers. But with home valuations on the rise, homeowners are charging top dollar.

The neighborhood has built 12 brick duplexes, similar to what one would see in a suburban development, with a common fenced yard play area behind them. Teachers can rent them for $750-800 per month.

It’s great for families, Zamora knew that, but when the Spanish Trail Lodge went up for sale last December, he knew it would sweeten the deal for even more rookies. He was thinking of young teachers who aren’t ready to become homeowners and older teachers who aren’t necessarily looking to uproot their lives, but need to think about their financial future, like Staci Ely.

Ely wasn’t permanently moving 500 miles away. Her husband, six children and four grandchildren still return to Emory, a small rural town east of Dallas.

But Ely knew she couldn’t finish her career there, where the district was on the state minimum wage schedule, if she wanted to have a stable income in retirement.

She could retire with a 60% annual allowance of about $55,000 or 60% of the $80,000 she will earn at Fort Stockton.

It was a huge raise, but the Spanish Trail Lodge gave him the opportunity to bring home even more by cutting out his biggest expense – a market-priced rental. “I didn’t want all my raise to go to housing when we own a house,” she said.

In the 29 years she has taught, Ely has made many sacrifices. She drove 45 minutes each way. She worked for the state teacher’s minimum wage. She took additional courses when vacancies were not filled. She was happy to do it, she said, because she loves her job and loves the middle schoolers she teaches.

Fort Stockton teacher Staci Ely works in her room at the Spanish Trail Lodge. (Courtesy of Staci Ely)

But now she has to think about her future. It almost seems sacrilegious to say so, Ely said, because teachers are trained and conditioned to care for children. They are praised when they are, in a way, martyrs of the profession, she says. “I did 29 years for the kids, and I have to start thinking about my retirement.”

She goes home to see her family when she can, but soon she will be able to enjoy another benefit; for the first time in her teaching career, Ely won’t have to work all summer, either taking summer classes or attending a side gig.

The motel is great while waiting, she said. In the center of the horseshoe-shaped car lot there is a detached house where the owner lived. The neighborhood has turned it into something of a clubhouse, with a large kitchen, two living rooms with recliners and big flat-screen TVs, a workout room with new equipment, and a laundry room with washers and dryers. dryers.

To house teachers recruited from across the state, Fort Stockton purchased the Spanish Trail Lodge, where teachers pay $250 per month. (Bekah McNeel)

One of the administrative assistants in Zamora’s office was in charge of making the clubhouse “user-friendly,” Zamora said, nodding to the decorative vases, potted plants and other decorations in the living rooms. “She really got into it.”

It’s not uncommon for rural districts to provide housing for teachers and administrators, Zamora said, but the hotel and its rock-bottom rent was something new. Not everyone in town has been happy with the district’s housing plans, Zamora said. Owners may have charged $1,500 or more simply because of supply and demand. In a town of 8,000, it doesn’t take much to disrupt the market.

Fort Stockton High School principal Ken Wallace had already paid the bounty for the oilfield once and didn’t want to do it again. Oil companies offer housing allowances to workers high enough to drive up rents far beyond what local residents are used to. He was a coach in a small town in Texas when it exploded and saw his rent triple in a year. When he moved to Fort Stockton for the manager’s position this year, he understood what was going on with the housing market and settled on the Spanish Trail Lodge.

As the only school administrator at the motel, the district offered him a double room, as he would be something of an acting “RA” on site – a link to the district administration in case something went wrong. But it’s not like rowdy college kids, he says, these hard-working professionals just want some peace and quiet when they get home.

“We’re all here and we see each other, but everyone sort of understands,” Wallace said, “We try not to step on each other.”

Wallace’s own retirement calculations include running AirBNB properties with his wife, who stayed in Goliad – 400 miles away – until the house they were renovating there was ready to start earning an income. He couldn’t have taken out another mortgage or such high rent.

“That’s the only reason we can swing it,” Wallace said. “It’s a total game-changer in terms of being housed.”

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