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Counties have launched housing initiatives specifically for teachers

Bailey Dumaine must commute 30 minutes from Morrisville to Carborro high school for work each day.
Bailey Dumaine must commute 30 minutes from Morrisville to Carborro high school for work each day.

“I have a thousand teacher friends — I’ve been here 10 years,” he said. “I’m the only teacher I know that lives in Chapel Hill.”

Bennett said because teacher salaries are so low and housing costs in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are so high, many CHCCS teachers choose to live instead in nearby areas like Efland, Pittsboro and Durham.

He said when he first came to teach in Chapel Hill 10 years ago, he and his wife couldn’t afford to live in Chapel Hill at all. Instead, the two bought a home in Durham, which they’re leasing until it makes financial sense to sell.

“I was a Carolina student for four years. I assumed when we got the job in Chapel Hill, we would go out to eat on Franklin — that’s why we moved back to Chapel Hill. But for the years we lived in Durham, we went out in Durham every night,” Bennett said.

“When I first moved to town, the only thing we could afford (in Chapel Hill) was a cinderblock one-bedroom building that would only loosely be described as a house. Today, I could do a little more, but I’ve been teaching for a decade now, and even now we’re looking at starter houses and student rentals that need to be fixed up.”

It takes a village

The starting salary for a North Carolina public school teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $35,000. The most a teacher with those qualifications can ever earn is $50,000 per year.

According to the National Education Association, salaries for public school teachers in North Carolina have declined 17.4 percent in the past decade, a bigger decline than any other state.

Nationally, North Carolina ranks fourth-lowest in starting salaries for teachers and sixth-lowest in average teacher salary.

In North Carolina’s Hertford, Dare and Holyoke counties, the N.C. State Employees’ Credit Union has launched past initiatives to build affordable housing almost exclusively for teachers, leasing apartments at prices below the market rate.

Elaine Wallace, spokesperson for the SECU, said no such initiatives are planned at this time for Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools.

Jeffrey Nash, spokesperson for CHCCS, said teacher housing has been tossed around at board meetings but hasn’t gained much traction.

“There’s no concrete move toward that yet,” he said.

Nash said the district offers other incentives for teachers, such as an educator discount card that all school district employees receive, which gets them discounts at dozens of local stores and restaurants.

Teachers can also take advantage of services offered by the Community Home Trust, a nonprofit that helps low-income people find and purchase affordable homes.

Lori Woolworth, Community Home Trust’s director of operations and finance, said teachers make up 7 percent of the people the organization has helped buy a home.

“Teachers are definitely part of our target audience,” Woolworth said.

Salary and the classroom

Bailey Dumaine is in her third year teaching English as a second language at Carrboro High School. She said she got the job over the phone, though she’s heard that’s highly unusual for such a high-performing, highly desired district.

“People really do love living and working in this area,” she said. “Carrboro happened to hire me, which was an incredible piece of luck.”

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Dumaine and her husband moved to the area for his job in Research Triangle Park. They now live in an apartment in Morrisville because they can’t afford to buy a home closer to Chapel Hill.

“He’s a software developer, which means society really values him monetarily. They are willing to pay him lots of money right now,” she said.

“If I, as a teacher, had not gotten married, I would not be able to buy a house in the city or district where I teach. I just wouldn’t.”

Driving 30 minutes to school and 30 minutes home, Dumaine said, has an impact that stretches beyond having to deal with rush hour traffic.

“Because I live in Morrisville, kids will be like, ‘Hey Ms. Dumaine, are you going to do such and such at this place?’ And I will say I can’t. They invite me to come watch them at their basketball games or see them in school plays, and I want to do it, but I can’t, at least as much as I could if I lived in the area,” she said.

“And those are things that help you form positive, productive relationships with your students. When they feel like you care about them as people, you get so much more work done.”

On the state level

Dumaine said if she were in Ohio, where she attended college and had her first teaching job, she would be making a much higher salary. According to the National Education Association, Ohio pays teachers an average of $56,307 per year, compared to North Carolina’s $45,737.

“The North Carolina legislature has to consider whether or not they’re going to put the extra money out there to keep teachers who are worth the money,” Dumaine said.

Bennett said the North Carolina state legislature’s approach to education issues is misguided.

“This state’s been spending less on the people that teach the children and reallocating more money to weird charters, special programs and college output machines that create curriculum websites that are useless,” he said.

He said in his 10 years of teaching, many colleagues have left for greener pastures.

“The teachers are often so good here credential-wise that when the economy wiggles around and tech startups happen, there’s math, science and tech teachers that can go work for those companies and make a lot more money,” Bennett said.

“Nobody’s making enough money teaching to talk them out of any sort of good offer or opportunity.”

Where have they gone?

Erica Kinney, a teacher at Chapel Hill High School, said she left teaching for a while because she could make more money doing social work.

Eventually, she said, she missed teaching and decided to return. But that doesn’t mean she’s any more satisfied with her income.

“For the educators that really enjoy doing it regardless of what their income is, it’s an easy way to burn out,” she said. “Those are the people putting in their resources and their all into it without as much return.”

Chris Beichner and his wife, both teachers, moved closer to Chapel Hill from Halifax County for a more suburban, less rural environment and for the university setting and proximity to the airport. Beichner said he’s pretty happy with his pay.

“I get kind of frustrated by the impoverished teacher narrative that you hear about,” he said. “When I started down here, I wasn’t even making $25,000 a year. Now I’m close to $50,000 a year. In 13 years, I’ve nearly doubled my salary.”

Beichner said North Carolina’s main problem is how it pays long-time teachers. Even with 30 years of experience, a North Carolina public school teacher can only earn a maximum of $50,000.

“Do I wish teachers were paid more? Yes, I do. I think teachers at the top end are underpaid and underpaid by about $15,000.”

Rita Schiavone teaches art at Carrboro High School. She said she now lives in Pittsboro because her husband’s death last year cut her income by half.

“After 20 years in the central N.C. region, I am considering leaving the teaching profession due to inadequate income and lack of housing,” she said in an email.

Bennett said it’s hard to feel a part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community when he and his family are forced to live so far away.

“I know Chapel Hill parents who keep me in the loop on town gossip, on new principals, what’s going to change, what the board’s planning to do,” he said. “Often we teachers don’t know any of that stuff because it’s a local discussion, and we’re not local.”