By Anjali Patel
RUTHERFORD COUNTY, North Carolina (WLOS) — Plans are underway to turn an old, historic school in Rutherford County into affordable housing for educators, as converging crises have school district leaders getting creative and trying something new.
“I’ve worked in public education for almost 30 years and I would say recruitment and retention of employees is a greater challenge today than it has ever been and that’s exacerbated by the difficulty that new and returning employees have in finding high quality, affordable housing available to them,” said Dr. David Sutton, Superintendent of Rutherford County Schools.
Dr. Sutton said he thinks the issue calls on school leaders “to think differently about how they reach out and attract and connect and build relationships and support systems for the people who provide services to our children.”
He said they still have vacancies for teaching positions that they were unable to fill in the summer, because they have inadequate applicants. He added, it is troubling to him that in December, they’re still struggling to attract applicants to apply for those jobs.
With available, affordable housing a big hindrance to hiring, the school district is undertaking something it’s never done before: Affordable housing specifically for educators in Rutherford County Schools.
Instead of new construction, the district is exploring repurposing an existing school in Rutherfordton, which used to be home to R-S Central High School and, most recently, R-S Middle School.
“Until a few months ago, this campus was R-S Middle School and served just under 600 students here in the community. We finished construction on a new middle school to replace that facility late in the last school year and into the summer,” Dr. Sutton said.
He said the early estimated cost of the renovations would be $10 million to $12 million. The district is exploring the project with the help of Dogwood Health Trust and the county government, which helped fund a feasibility study through Odom Engineering. Dr. Sutton said the outcome of the study was encouraging, and the efforts have gained momentum over the course of the past year or so. However, he said the district is taking its time and being thorough with the project to ensure they get it right.
“The early feasibility plan suggested that we could probably put in somewhere between 40 and 45 apartment units,” he said. He added that they hope to add some amenities for the residents, like a gym and recreational spaces for children.
As for the rental rates, Dr. Sutton said they’re leaning into Dogwood Health Trust’s expertise in that area, but the district’s goal is to have rent levels that don’t exceed more than 30% of residents’ annual income.
“I think, ideally, in the next three to five years, we would see full occupancy and full service back to the community in its new life form,” Dr. Sutton said.
The vision for the housing project is still very formative and fluid and could include other buildings, but it focuses on the campus’ main, historic building — which is nearly a century old.
Dr. Sutton said he’d heard a lot of positive feedback from the community regarding this undertaking.
“I was just at one of our elementary schools early today and heard from the principal that among faculty members at that school, there’s a lot of excitement already,” he said.
He added with the building’s historical value, there’s interest in also paying homage to the school’s past. As the district looks to tackle modern problems, school leaders want to maintain sight of what the campus used to be and mean to folks there.
“We want to balance those two interests very carefully to build a modern facility that’s attractive to residents but also one that pays respect to its history here in the community,” he said.
Separately, the school district is also exploring using other buildings on the expansive campus for other administrative and operational functions.
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