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Workforce housing effort continues at Big Sky School District via talks with Habitat for Humanity
“If things move forward, this Big Sky project would be Gallatin Valley Habitat For Humanity’s first joint-venture with a school board.”

While the Big Sky School District has been successful in recruiting new instructors to its growing schools, it’s still subject to the same issues most Big Sky businesses eventually face—including employee burnout when the commute to and from Bozeman rears its head, often due to the lack of affordable housing options in Big Sky. 

BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman sees the affordable housing issue as a serious challenge for his district, noting that teacher retention is a priority and that he too often sees staff forced to embark on the unsustainable Bozeman commute. Or, if his instructors do find Big Sky rental housing, they’re sometimes stuck dealing with numerous roommates. 

“We know sooner or later they are going to be tired of living like they are still in college,” Shipman said of his teachers in a recent email to the Lookout. “We also have a lot of cases when housing situations change over the course of a month (a landlord selling a rental the teacher is in) and this causes a lot of stress for the educator.”

 This housing dilemma has been a topic of discussion at monthly BSSD school board meetings, where an affordable housing committee was formed earlier this year. The committee, comprised of trustees Loren Bough, Scott Hammond and Stacy Ossorio, along with Shipman, has been studying ways to remedy the issue, and at the most recent board meeting Shipman seemed pleased to announce that the effort is moving forward at a swift pace. 

As part of the housing committee’s initial investigation it was determined that the district was within HOA guidelines to build employee housing on the school campus property. Additionally, meetings with a real estate lawyer proved hopeful as it seems permitting would be relatively easy as the district, a government entity, is exempt from county zoning regulations. 

Land availability and building permits covered, the next question the committee asked was, exactly how does one build affordable Big Sky housing? That’s where talks with Habitat for Humanity come into play. The committee recently met Habitat for Humanity of Gallatin Valley Executive Director Dave Magistrelli, who came back to the board with preliminary info on what could potentially be accomplished. 

Magistrelli attended the Nov. 12 board meeting, expressing his pleasure in potentially working with the district, noting that this is somewhat new territory for Habitat in Montana. 

“There are Habitats across the country that have joint-ventured with school boards to build housing for their employees,” said Magistrelli, explaining that his organization is currently in a similar phase working with the Bozeman School District in their similar teacher housing challenges. 

Magistrelli touted some of his organization’s work, describing its mission to “put people in housing that one, they can afford, and two, is energy efficient, decent, and sustainable.” Gallatin Valley Habitat for Humanity has been around since 1991, and over those years 75 homes have been built from West Yellowstone to Gardiner, Bozeman, Belgrade, Livingston and Three Forks.

If things move forward, this Big Sky project would be the local Habitat’s first joint-venture with a school board. 

“Primarily, because our biggest problem is getting property,” Magistrelli told the board. That not being an issue in this situation, Magistrelli went on to his proposal: To build housing for the BSSD using Habitat volunteers, along with contractor discounts offered to Habitat. 

Unlike some other Habitat developments in which the organization actually holds the mortgage, the BSSD would own the homes that are built. 

“We are here to help facilitate the building to help get people into housing that is not only affordable but sustainable,” said Magistrelli. “That’s what we’d like to do and that’s what we’d like to joint-venture with you folks on.”

Trustee Bough was interested in the sustainability and quality of the homes, “So we don’t have maintenance issues, and surprises down the road, with snow conditions, snow load,” he said. 

Longtime BSSD teacher Brittany Shirley was at the meeting, offering her concerns as well, “And power bills!”

If the board decided to move forward with Habitat, via a Memorandum of Understanding, Magistrelli said the MOU would include a budget and views of what the home(s) would look like, including cost-efficient, and energy effective structural insulated panels. 

“And we build to code,” said Magistrelli, who joined Habitat in 2009. “One of the interesting things I found out about Habitat in Montana is that we set some of the standards for insulation and energy efficiency in construction.” 

All this information noted, the BSSD board voted and agreed unanimously to invest $2,000 to continue working with Habitat. Magistrelli will get back to the board in the coming weeks with greater specifics on what could be accomplished, and with that info in hand, the board will present the findings to the community. 

“I think the idea of partnering with such an established company as Habitat for Humanity is really good for us… it seems like a natural fit, and I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before,” said trustee Whitney Littman of the school-Humanity collaboration. “And the idea we can also use our own plan, to try to solve this problem, is really appealing.”

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