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From Building Minds To Building Bathrooms

Teaching is still important to Ken Nies, who earned his master’s degree in education, taught for a few years while struggling with the salary, and finally gave it up to run a home-improvement business.

His business, which is called “Two Poor Teachers,” is not only a bigger money-maker than teaching but also a red flag that the teaching industry is underpaid. Now, instead of building minds, he's building bathrooms.

"It was a result of poor salaries in the county," Nies said.

Nies earned his undergraduate degree in Buffalo and then earned his master’s degree at Canisius College in New York. After that, he got a teaching job and coached in Buffalo until he was laid off. The school system was cutting back.

He came to Fairfax County in 1997 and got a job teaching at a salary of approximately $35,000. It wasn't much, when all the deductions and fees were taken out, which included teacher organizations he was forced to join, he claimed.

Housing was his biggest expense. A one-bedroom, basement apartment with no kitchen cost him $400 a month, and he had to wash the dishes in the bathroom sink. Nies compared that with what he had in Buffalo.

"I was 24 years old, had a house on two acres of land that cost me $800 a month," he said.

Nies then moved in with another teacher, Tom Pennell, and a policeman. Nies was a physical education teacher at Wakefield Forest Elementary school, and Pennell was a P.E. teacher at Cardinal Forest Elementary. Together, they started doing home-improvement work evenings and weekends. In 1999, they started Two Poor Teachers, and in 2002, Nies took it over completely. Pennell is still at Cardinal Forest.

"He chose to teach, and I chose to pursue the home-improvement business," Nies said.

Nies bought out Pennell so he could be the sole owner of the company, with eight employees. He bought a house as well.

"I did pretty well," Nies said of last year's salary.

Nies' father also worked in the education field. After seeing his son go through a master’s degree program, he did not see a home-improvement career as part of the picture.

"He thought I might be a little bit crazy," Nies said.

BURKE CONSERVANCY member Marcie Reinertson had her bathroom renovated by Nies. Reinertson was also a teacher in the past, so she knew where Nies was coming from. She had 20 years with Fairfax County Public Schools at Poe Middle School and Bonnie Brae Elementary School.

"Being a former teacher, I can understand that," she said.

Paul Regnier, FCPS spokesperson, said the first five years are usually tough for new teachers.

"It's very hard to keep a teacher within that first five years," Regnier said.

Many have a second job, Regnier added, which is no problem with the school system unless a conflict of interest arises. Individuals cannot use their status as a teacher to push another agenda.

"We have rules about a conflict of interest," Regnier said.

On a typical day, Nies is out of the house by 6:30 a.m. and back by 4, with no one to answer to but the customers.

"It's nice being your own person, being your own boss. It's a lot easier answering to that than parents," he said.

According to Reinertson, Nies does pay attention to his customers. Prices were reasonable, the project was done on time, and he followed up on any problems after her bathroom was done.

"They did a great job. They even plowed our driveway at Christmas," she said.

Retiring and becoming a teacher is one thing Nies hears a lot from homeowners, but Nies just shrugs. He knows what it entails. His sympathy for current teachers is reflected in his special deal.

"Any county employee gets 10 percent off labor with proof of county employment," he said.

When Nies retires from the home-improvement business, he is leaving his options open, though.