Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

Gov. Lujan Grisham announced on Wednesday that her administration will be pursuing a seven percent pay increase for educators and staff at all K-12 public schools. The proposal would increase salaries for nearly 50,000 staff across New Mexico. The total cost of the proposed pay increase would be about $280 million that she’ll be asking the Legislature to approve.

It’s a move that’s welcomed by education advocates who presented a recent study on the lack of affordable housing for teachers to lawmakers by the National Education Assembly (NEA) of New Mexico who surveyed 400 educators in the Santa Fe Public School System. The survey asked teachers if they could afford a home on their current teacher salary, and 86 percent responded no. More than half of the participants responded that they were concerned if they would be able to continue to live in Santa Fe due to rising housing costs.

The average starting salary for a teacher in New Mexico is $41,000, which is a livable income for most of the state. But in cities such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, it’s often not enough. The average cost of rent in Hobbs, N.M., is $650, while the cost of rent in Santa Fe doubles to $1,460. Albuquerque’s average cost of rent is $1,117.

“It’s always hard to talk about the hard parts of teaching because I love teaching; but it gets tough, especially like places like Santa Fe,” Jamie Torres, a teacher in Santa Fe, said in an interview with The Paper. Torres noted that, despite her love and passion for the profession, the cost of living in Santa Fe had made her job as an educator unsustainable. Torres was lucky enough to have family in Santa Fe that she was able to live with until she could save enough to find her apartment. However, skyrocketing housing and rental prices made the challenge of finding a place on her salary nearly insurmountable. This was exacerbated by a percentage of each one of her checks going toward retirement, health and other benefits offered by the Santa Fe School District, along with student debt. Torres noted that, during her first four years as a teacher with the school district, her bi-weekly check would only come out to $900 after taxes. In one of the most expensive cities in the state, that simply won’t cut it.

Luckily, through extensive networking, Torres was finally able to find a one-bedroom apartment, but the cost of living has still made her reconsider her location and even her career. “It’s an amazing career to get into, but somewhere like Santa Fe, it puts me in a position where I wonder if I can afford to be a teacher.”

The survey conducted by NEA hopes to put pressure on state lawmakers to increase teacher salaries to a livable wage and attract more qualified candidates to a profession that has nationally been severely understaffed.

In an interview with the president of the Albuquerque Teacher Federation, Union President Ellen Bernstein commented that housing is just one of many challenges facing teachers in this state. Bernstein noted that New Mexico’s education workforce is on the verge of a “Great Exhaustion.” “The question for this session is not just what is a livable wage, but what is a competitive wage. If they don’t go bold, I guarantee we will lose more than 1,000 people,” Bernstein said. According to Bernstein, understaffed schools and general disrespect towards educators have forced many educators to either retire or move to a region with higher salaries or better benefits. “We have a workforce that is either going to quit or retire because of their extreme exhaustion due to these shortages,” Bernstein said.

If action is not taken in the upcoming legislation session, Bernstein warns that the chronic problems facing New Mexico’s education system are just going to get worse. “The stress of our current shortages are going to create more shortages,” she said. Bernstein also noted that past efforts to increase teacher wages were short-sighted, as lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would keep teacher salaries competitive and rise with the cost of living.

It is also not just teachers who are forced to consider a change in their careers due to the cost of living. Support staff at schools, including secretaries, custodians and bus drivers, are in alarmingly short supply due to wages that still lie below the poverty line. According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a school custodian in New Mexico is just over $20,000, which is roughly just over $10 an hour. With wages well below the poverty line, there is little doubt what the source is for a rapidly thinning workforce in our state’s schools.

Bernstein hopes that the Legislature takes drastic action to increase resources to New Mexico’s schools to stem a fleeing workforce. “If they choose to New Mexico, they should be able to raise in family New Mexico.”