Momentum builds to fix Katherine teacher housing crisis

Departmental officers brief Katherine staff in 2019 on the proposed phasing out of the housing subsidy

If the housing situation doesn’t improve in Katherine, why would I live in there instead of somewhere else like Darwin?”
— Katherine teacher, 2021

The pre-eminent issue for AEU members in Katherine is the dysfunctional and deteriorating housing situation. This theme has emerged on each of the visits undertaken to Katherine sub-branches by AEU NT officers in 2021.

This is unsurprising, given the short-sighted decision by the NT Government and Department of Education in 2019 to phase out longstanding head leasing arrangements. This scheme had previously provided most DoE teaching staff in Katherine with low-rent housing at fixed rates (the only teacher incentive specific to the town) to attract and retain teaching staff.

When the subsidy was proposed for abolition, AEU NT members told DoE officers unequivocally that decision this would have serious and long-term consequences for educational outcomes in Katherine. Without regards for these concerns, the Department went ahead anyway to save a comparatively paltry $500,000 per year (from an agency budget of more than a billion dollars).

Skip forward to 2021 and the lack of adequate and affordable housing means that teacher recruitment in Katherine is becoming increasingly untenable. Properties are scarce and rents have skyrocketed. Those few properties that are advertised are typically leased almost immediately. Those on offer are often in undesirable areas deemed unsafe by locals. Teachers report being squeezed out of the market by other government agencies like police, with landlords preferring the security of a head leasing arrangement to private tenancies.

The union was told of one teacher who was rejected on 20 applications. We have heard that newly arrived teachers are having to live in hotels, Airbnbs or unsafe and overpriced housing for extended periods.

An online search we conducted in May 2021 found only 12 properties for rent in Katherine, with the average rental cost for a house being approximately $540 per week. Conversely, there were 85 properties for rent in Darwin, where the average rental cost for a house is only $30 per week more. The result is that staff are leaving Katherine and the Department’s inability to replace them is causing significant flow-on effects to the teachers that remain.

This is best illustrated by the staffing crisis at Katherine High School (KHS), which currently has numerous vacancies that cannot be filled. The school has had difficulty recruiting all year and in some cases those that do accept positions are subsequently withdrawing their applications upon discovering the dire housing situation.

The Principal recently resigned, and this year alone there have been at least nine teachers from KHS who have also resigned and moved on. Of the teachers that accepted positions at KHS to fill these vacancies, up to 11 withdrew their applications after finding out about how broken the housing situation is in Katherine. All these details have been provided by the union to the Department with no meaningful response.

…20 relief lessons had to be covered by KHS staff, many of whom were already at or over their maximum face-to-face teaching time…

The Department continues to claim publicly that these vacancies have no “direct impact” on students. A DoE spokesperson told the Katherine Times that “parents and families can be assured that Katherine High School has strategies in place to ensure that all students attending school have access to high-quality teaching and learning programs”.

Members on the ground tell a different story. On Monday 17 May, for example, 20 relief lessons had to be covered by KHS staff, many of whom were already at or over their maximum face-to-face teaching time. An additional eight classes were sent to the Library for their lessons that day, as there weren’t enough teachers to cover them.

The relief classes needing to be covered is indicative of the number of teachers calling in sick due to overwork and stress. Staff have told the union that they are near the end of their tether and that breaking point is rapidly approaching.

This leaves many teachers asking themselves why they would continue to work in Katherine when there is no shortage of teaching positions elsewhere. Some are considering moving to a remote locality, enticed by access to rent-free government employee housing. Some are weighing up moving to Darwin, where rental costs are similar and supply is greater along with far more amenities. The reality is that there are plenty of opportunities for teachers in Katherine to move on to. If (or when) this occurs, the Department will have an even more difficult time filling vacant positions, and this will jeopardise educational delivery in the town, especially in secondary.

Ultimately, Katherine students will suffer most from the Government’s failure to acknowledge that abolishing the subsidy was a mistake and reinstate it.

The AEU NT has stressed the urgency of finding solutions to this issue on numerous occasions with the Minister and the DoE Chief Executive. The CE has said that a review of current arrangements will be brought forward, but we do not have firm commitments about a timeline or likely outcomes.

The Shadow Education Minister and Katherine MLA Jo Hersey said she is aware of the high number of teachers leaving Katherine. She has also called for a reintroduction of the rental subsidy program.

The AEU NT will continue to press the Department to reinstate the subsidy and will also raise it as a bargaining issue in enterprise agreement negotiations.

DoE needs to commence negotiations with the AEU and other key stakeholders immediately on what arrangements will be in place beyond 2022, to provide certainty to employees and maximise staffing continuity. The NT Government and the Department must immediately commit to ensuring the continuation of a viable housing subsidy scheme for DoE staff that provides sufficient incentives for teachers and other essential employees to not only move to Katherine but remain there for the medium to long term.

The next step for our campaign is a “town hall” meeting in early June of Katherine members to discuss how to build further pressure on the government to fix the deteriorating situation.

This is an extended version of an article published in the Semester 1, 2021 edition of the Territory Educator.

Read our March 2021 report on Katherine housing