McCall-Donnelly spearheads solutions to workforce struggles

McCall’s picturesque lakefront views and mountain-town charm lend well to year-round tourism — but the town’s workforce is struggling.

Like other resort towns across the country — including Idaho’s own Sun Valley and Coeur d’Alene — McCall is plagued with high housing costs and a lack of housing availability. Just a quarter of available housing in McCall is lived in by locals — the vast majority of homes are vacation rentals or seasonal cabins, according to a 2022 housing action plan created by the city.

And that struggle is coupled with a lack of affordable childcare — an issue that impacts most of rural and remote Idaho. Some McCall workers are quitting their jobs or using paid vacation time and sick days to stay home and care for their own and other’s kids.

For the McCall-Donnelly School District, housing and childcare needs have burgeoned into significant barriers to recruiting and retaining a quality workforce, said district superintendent Eric Pingrey. Applicants have declined job offers because they can’t find housing and current teachers are concerned about returning to the classroom without a secure and affordable childcare option.

Last year, the Blaine County School District, located in popular Idaho resort town Sun Valley, implemented its own employee housing plan after facing similar retention and recruitment struggles caused by inflated housing costs.

So, the district is taking solutions into its own hands — by building new affordable housing units for staff and opening a fully operational daycare center in the district office.

Pingrey says the plan is part of the district’s role as the “heart of the community.”

“We have to take care of not only our staff, but the town as a whole,” Pingrey said. “Crisis is crisis.”

Early childcare center to open in August

The lack of childcare in McCall is so severe, a group of teachers and staff banded together to create a solution: rotating their own vacation and sick leave days to stay home with a group of kids. They sacrificed their own benefits because they had nowhere else to turn.

But the childcare issue extends far beyond the school district.

Staff from hospitals and other local organizations showed up in droves to community meetings to voice their own childcare struggles. And at least 60 people responded to a district survey with desperate childcare needs, including 13 school staffers and seven St. Luke’s staffers. By May, the district had 80 people interested in a childcare plan.

“It was heartbreaking listening to a lot of these young moms’ stories,” said Pingrey, following one district meeting. “We needed a solution.”

So, he worked with community members to develop one. Through donations and workforce readiness grants, the district raised $500,000 to start a daycare and preschool that will begin operating in August from inside the newly purchased 10,000-square-foot district office.

To start, the center will accept around 12 infants, 16 toddlers and 25 three- to five-year-olds, depending on staffing. The district will charge the going rate for care, around $200-$250/week. And there’s already a waitlist — right now, 80 kids are registered.

McCall-Donnelly is hiring paraprofessionals for the daycare. Wages start at $17.32 with benefits. Learn more at the district’s website.

Beyond filling a childcare need, the daycare will also be a resource for McCall-Donnelly’s students — those in the early childhood education CTE program can gain experience and earn credit by putting in hours at the facility.

Phase one of housing plan to be completed by next fall

This summer, the school district broke ground on its first housing complex — an eight-unit building with one- and two-bedroom apartments. The building is the first in a 35-unit housing plan, which will also include some three-bedroom, cottage-style homes.

The housing will go to current and prospective school district employees who can’t find stable housing, said Pingrey. The first building will be complete before the 2024-25 school year to help with next year’s recruitment efforts.

“Everything is moving smoothly,” the superintendent confirmed.

The district’s initiative aligns with a 2022 City of McCall plan to provide housing for locals earning up to 100% of the area median income (about $60,000). The plan is to produce housing at an “aggressive, but achievable” rate (an average of 50 units per year), and to increase the local occupancy rate from 27% to 40%.

Building housing is more sustainable for the district compared to other recruiting and retention solutions, like boosting staff salaries, according to Pingrey. Offering housing fills a need and also brings in extra cash.

So far, McCall-Donnelly’s housing plan comes at no extra cost to taxpayers. The district pulled reserve funds and auctioned land to raise $5 million for phase one, avoiding a bond or supplemental levy proposal.

The district hasn’t yet created an application and acceptance process for the housing, but qualified applicants will need to demonstrate need — something Pingrey says isn’t hard for many employees to do.

“I can’t even afford a house here,” he said. “I’ve got one more year on my lease and I’m not sure what I’ll do after that.”

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday