Bentonville, other school districts ponder housing issue for teachers, staff

One of many houses for sale in Rogers, Ark. Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/FILE PHOTO)

BENTONVILLE -- The Bentonville School District is floating the idea of donating some of its land to build affordable housing for school employees and possibly others in the community.

The matter is on the agenda for discussion at the School Board's meeting Monday. The board won't vote on the proposal.

"What we've accepted is that thinking about housing for staff traditionally hasn't been a responsibility of the district," Superintendent Debbie Jones said. "Maybe it's not. But it's something that we're forced to think about now because the one thing we do have to be responsible for is supplying the highest quality staff we can. You can't hire people -- and get people to live here -- if they don't have a space to live. We're taking a greater interest in that."

Northwest Arkansas' robust economy created a vibrant housing market.

And it's been too expensive for some district hires who had to reverse course after seeing the cost, Jones said.

"We personally started experiencing this when hiring for the '22 school year," Jones said. "We had people accept jobs within the district, and then they turned around and started looking for housing and realized that they couldn't afford to live here. And they resigned from that position. So, we now make it a practice, as we're interviewing and hiring for positions, that we say, 'Have you looked at the housing here? Do you know where you want to live? Do you have a plan?'"

Bentonville isn't alone.

The Springdale School Board voted earlier this month to purchase a house for $200,000 on the edge of Springdale High School's campus. The couple living there is moving out, Springdale Superintendent Jared Cleveland said at the time, and the district will provide an opportunity for a staff member searching for a home to live there.

"We are trying to find a solution for a difficult problem," Cleveland said.

Every superintendent -- especially those of the region's four largest districts, Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale -- has discussed not being able to help provide appropriate housing, especially for younger people, he said.

"Hiring people from the university, typically, they already have housing," Cleveland said. "But attracting people from outside of the region is a real challenge. When you add those kinds of stresses to incoming employees, that's also a burden on the district because we feel for them. We care about them. They're part of our family."

A thriving community with a good quality of life helps school districts, Rogers Superintendent Jeff Perry said, noting that prosperity brings more students and a solid tax base. But there are growing pains, he said.

"It's something that's been going on for a couple of years or so," Perry said of the housing issue. "I don't think this is unique to our area. I think it's going on in a lot of places."

Perry said last fall Rogers lost out on hiring a couple of good teachers because of what they saw in the housing market.

The Bentonville proposal involves 9 acres just east of Bentonville High School and just north of Southeast 21st Street, according to information from the district. Only 6 of those acres can be developed because the other 3 are in a floodplain, according to the information.

The School District's legal team is awaiting an Arkansas attorney general's opinion on the following questions about the land, according to district information:

Whether it's constitutional for the district to donate the 9 acres to a not-for-profit corporation for the development of affordable housing for school employees and others in the community.

Whether donating the land to a not-for-profit corporation "serves a beneficial educational service for the citizens of the school district."

Whether the development would be considered improving or upgrading the donated land.

State Rep. Mindy McAlindon, R-Centerton, requested the attorney general's opinion, according to the district.

If the land is eventually approved for development and the School Board approves the proposal, the district wouldn't be the landlord; the district would donate the property and another entity would manage it, Jones said.

"We'll wait and see what the board says, but I think we have a good proposal in front of them," said Jones, who noted the district must first verify the proposal is legal.

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Bentonville School Board meeting

When: 5:30 p.m. Monday

Where: 500 Tiger Blvd.