Martha’s Vineyard teachers must juggle housing and lesson plans

The first test many newly hired Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School teachers face is finding a place to live that they can afford.

Gil Traverso visited Martha's Vineyard Regional High School on Wednesday. — Photo by Janet Hefler

A newly hired teacher faces many challenges when he or she moves to Martha’s Vineyard. One of the biggest challenges before the new school year even begins is the search for a place to live. The high cost of housing, school administrators said, is a factor in hiring, and is a problem they are struggling to solve.

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School history teacher Andrew Vandall is originally from Pittsburgh, Pa. He arrived on the Island in 2012 to take a job at the high school. While trying to acclimate to the unique Island school and community, Mr. Vandall juggled housing.

The term of his first full-year contract was from August 28 to June 20. Most winter rentals end in May.

“Where are teachers supposed to live, shower, do their lesson plans, when they don’t have housing?” Mr. Vandall said in an emailed response to a question about his housing struggle.

For the first six months, he lived in a 100-square-foot shed with a microwave, toaster, and outdoor shower. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “And I was lucky; at least I had a shed.”

Mr. Vandall signed a winter rental contract for $3,600. It was all of the money in his bank account at the time.

“Teachers are great renters, because we have a guaranteed winter employment, as opposed to laborers,” he said.

Mr. Vandall is not alone. Special education teacher Ryan Kent moved to the Vineyard two years ago. Mr. Kent is now living in his fourth location.

“I think that the district could do more to help incoming and moving teachers find housing,” he said.

Elaine Hays, a writing-lab teacher, began teaching at the beginning of this school year. “The school administration sent me a lot of ads for rentals, but they were all very expensive,” she said. “If the school system offered housing at a reasonable price, it would make a big difference.”

Housing costs also affect those further up the salary ladder.

In July 2014, Gilbert Traverso, principal of the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield, accepted the principal’s job at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, at a salary of $140,000. He began his new job on August 1.

Unable to find housing in the summer, he ended up in a rental in New Bedford and commuted every day for the first month of school.

“Looking back on the experience, if I knew I was going to have to commute six hours every day, I would not have taken the job as principal for the high school,” he told The Times.

Mr. Traverso is not alone in reaching that conclusion, although in his case it was after the fact. “I know of people that were very qualified for jobs here at the high school, however, who chose not to come here, because of the high housing costs,” Mr. Traverso said.

Matt D’Andrea moved to the Island in the fall of last year to take the job of assistant superintendent under Jim Weiss, superintendent of schools, whom he will replace in June when Mr. Weiss is set to retire.

He has endured the Island shuffle, from summer to winter rentals, and recently found a rental in Edgartown by word of mouth. “When we advertise for the job, we get a lot of applicants,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “If they have connections to the Island, if they have a place to live, that is a big plus. For people that don’t have a connection, they will come out and interview; when they start the process of trying to find a house, they run into a roadblock. It presents us with a challenge, in that many teachers decide not to come here.”

Attracting quality teachers and retaining those that are here poses a constant challenge for school administrators. “We already have some fantastic teachers in this district, but we have lost some very good teachers because of housing,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

Some proposed strategies include teacher-designated housing and a housing subsidy.

The starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree is a little over $54,000, according to Mr. Weiss. Mr. Traverso proposes that the school offer a housing subsidy during a teacher’s transitional period and assist with finding rentals for the school district.

Mr. D’Andrea agrees that some type of bridge program is important. “I would love to have transitional housing that enables them to acclimate to the school and the Island community without having to worry about housing,” he said. “They can focus on being a teacher and developing relationships on the Island rather than facing the challenge of the Island shuffle up front.”

On Nantucket, a private nonprofit, the Nantucket Education Trust, developed a 12-unit housing cluster located on property near the high school playing fields. The residential units are offered at below-market rental rates, and provide affordable housing options for school faculty.

When vacancies exist, town employees get first shot, followed by the general public.

Property manager Milen Tsvetkov said four units are currently occupied by Nantucket school employees. A one-bedroom apartment rents for between $1,400 and $1,500 per month.