For many teachers, living in Loudoun is just too expensive
Loudoun teacher Julie Ruhlen gets up at 6:15 a.m. every weekday to brave the 50-minute commute from Winchester to Leesburg, where she works as a reading specialist at Harper Park Middle School.
Five years or so away from retirement, Ruhlen has been teaching for a while. But she still can't afford to live in the county she works.
“Knowing that I have years of experience and am higher on the salary scale, I still can't afford to live in Loudoun,” Ruhlen said.
Loudoun County Public Schools is one of the largest employers in the county, employing more than 10,000. Of those 10,000 employees, 5,633 are teachers, according to LCPS numbers from 2015.
Roughly 27 percent of these employees don't live in the county. For some, like Ruhlen, they simply can't afford it.
Loudoun's cost of living in 2012 was 133.6, according to city-data.com. A cost of living index compares the average consumer cost to live in a city against other cities. The average cost of living in the U.S. is 100 on the index. That means it costs 33.6 percent more to live in Loudoun than the nation's average.
The average household income in Loudoun from 2009 to 2013 was more than $122,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, the average yearly teacher salary is $47,500 for a bachelor's degree holder, according to the fiscal 2015 report from the Office of Budget Services.
For those who don't have a supplemental income – either from a spouse, roommates or otherwise – working for the local school system often means living out of the county and sometimes out of state. West Virginia houses 6.3 percent of LCPS employees. Just over 7 percent of staff live in Fairfax.
“I'm a single wage earner. Thinking down the line in a few years thinking about retiring, it's a little nerve wracking,” said Ruhlen. “For the reason that I'm the only wage earner here, there's no way I could even consider moving into Loudoun.”
It's not a secret. The topic comes up at Loudoun Board of Supervisor and School Board meetings and public hearings.
In the midst of budget discussions for fiscal 2016, community members have spoken up about areas they believe should be improved in Superintendent Eric Williams' proposed operational budget for LCPS.
One such area is teachers' compensation.
If the budget goes as proposed, teachers would be granted a one-time salary increase. But multiple speakers at two separate public hearings have stressed the need for a cost-of-living salary increase to be included in the budget.
Increases in employee Medicare expenses make the burden harder for school employees who aren't teachers, like bus drivers and maintenance workers, who don't receive the same salary jump for teachers to compensate for increases in health costs, according to Joey Matthews, president of the Loudoun Education Association.
“Teachers aren't as bad off as some of the employees. A lot of your classified employees are the ones that really get hit,” Matthews said. “A lot of the deductibles … go up in this budget and [these employees] actually end up taking home less than the year before that.”
Matthews believes the classified staff are often overlooked, whether financially or otherwise.
“The bus drivers are the first ones the kids see at the beginning of the day and the last [they see] at the end of the day,” he said. “The [teaching assistants] they're working with these kids, a lot of times because of the class sizes … The custodians, the maintenance people that have to keep these buildings going, it's unbelievable the amount of workload they actually have.”
The traffic is an added problem for those who live out of Loudoun. Ruhlen said she has to plan her commute around sometimes bumper-to-bumper backups, which cuts down on time even more. But cost is an issue too, and not just for gas.
Teachers get a stipend at the beginning of the year to pay for classroom supplies. But when that fund runs out, and it does, the only other source to draw from to buy boxes of crayons or books is out of a teacher's own salary. Ruhlen said she probably pays $100 to $120 of her own money per month to keep her classroom updated.
“[Living outside the county is] not all about salary. It's about my time and how much money out of my pocket I spend on my students,” she said. “When that [budgeted] money is gone, there's nothing to replenish it except for out of my own pocket … What we're given just isn't sufficient.”
Weather is also an issue when it comes to living out of county. While conditions in Loudoun might be drivable, elsewhere staff might have issues getting into work from inclement weather, especially over the mountain along Route 7 from Winchester. On Jan. 6, school administration made the call to keep schools open. Weather turned worse than anticipated, and many teachers weren't able to make it to work.
But living outside the county also means teachers aren't connected to the community their students are a part of.
“I do know that if I were able to live closer to the community where I work my contribution .. .would be much stronger,” said Ruhlen. “[My 50-minute commute] limits my ability to stay after school and attend events that my students may be a part of … I feel very limited in my ability to do that because of of my travel time.”