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Tight housing market accelerates educator’s arrival to lead Durango charter school

Philip Werline was No. 1 pick for The Juniper School
Philip Werline, the new head of school at The Juniper School, settles into his role Wednesday. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Philip Werline became a Durangoan a little faster than anticipated.

He begin his new position as head of school at The Juniper School on Monday. Originally, he planned to join the school in June.

But like a lot of newcomers, Durango’s hot housing market played a big role in accelerating his move from Aurora, where he was assistant principal at the Edna and John W. Mosley P-8 School.

“You know the housing market is tough, and we found a house we liked, we were looking for certain things,” Werline said. “It’s similar to the Denver market, and we didn’t want to roll the dice waiting; something similar might not be coming up again. When you feel like you’ve found something right, you feel like you need to move pretty quickly,”

Werline’s experience with Durango’s housing market opened his eyes to an issue the leader of a charter school can’t afford to ignore – Durango’s increasingly unaffordable housing market, which will be an impediment retaining teachers and attracting new ones.

And keeping and adding new teachers will be a thing at The Juniper School for the next couple of years.

Juniper plans to add a sixth grade class in the 2022-23 school year and seventh and eighth grade classes in 2023-24.

“From the perspective of challenges, housing was tough, and we’re two people with two good jobs. You can imagine how difficult it is to move here or to buy a house if you’re just starting out, somebody who is single.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the increased flexibility it created in workplaces also helped the Werlines’ move.

His wife, Melissa, works as a graphic designer with United Launch Alliance, and during the pandemic ULA began allowing employees to work from home.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “The pieces have all fallen into place. Again, you know, it is part of that privilege – having everything in place so we could move, we could be flexible, and Melissa could work remotely.”

Heather Houk, president of The Juniper School board of directors, said housing for educators has been a concern for years – with talks beginning three years ago among charter schools and Durango School District 9-R to brainstorm ideas to address the issue.

“All of us, we’re having that 30,000-foot level conversation about this. It’s such an important thing, and this was two years ago before the pandemic,” Houk said.

She remembers an initial idea – looking at the Mason Center property to build apartments that would have been offered at reasonable rents to young teachers along with their salaries – as one creative lure discussed years ago to help teachers just starting out obtain affordable housing in town.

“Housing is something all of us have to be aware of, and making sure our salaries are robust enough. I wish we could go all the way up to the state level to help people recognize that we need to have a higher per pupil revenue stream,” she said.

Werline also noted salaries in Southwest Colorado, even in Durango, are not competitive with the Front Range, but housing prices are.

Werline took a $25,000 salary cut to move to Durango, but he said he was looking to escape the urban environment to raise his two young boys, Bennett, 4, and Edison, 3, and his wife’s income helped make the move possible.

His situation, he noted, is something that’s unlikely to be enjoyed by a young teacher just out of college.

Houk said The Juniper School is fortunate to be located in a locale that can attract talented newcomers even if they must take a pay cut.

“We listed our salary range when we posted the position, and we still had almost 20 people apply,” she said. “So that tells you something about the quality of life here.

“We're incredibly fortunate to live in a place, like Durango that is a draw. So people are willing, in cases like Philip, to take that hit. We couldn’t be more fortunate to have somebody of his caliber.”

Houk said out of three finalists, Werline seemed like the best fit for the school – especially among staff members, who unanimously supported him and placed him at the top of their list.

“It felt like such a great fit for us as The Juniper School family. And as we are getting to know him and his family, it feels like that fit was really strong and good coming from him, too,” she said.

parmijo@durangohearld.com