Health & Medicine

School supply list grows as classroom needs increase

The back-to-school supply list seems to get longer every year, and it raises the question that if millions in tax dollars are spent on schools then why, in addition to paper and pencils, do lists include items like cleaning supplies and ink cartridges.

It's trickle-down economics, say teachers, parents and administrators.

School budget reductions put financial pressure on principals who put pressure on teachers, many of whom already subsidized their classrooms out of pocket. The teachers seek help from parents.

When Georgia Powell saw the lists for her three grandchildren, two of whom are in elementary school, her response: ”Oh, my goodness.“

Her list, like most, included not only classroom supply staples like pencils and paper but baby wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer.

By trying to catch the buy-one-get-one free sales that pop up near summer's end, Powell spent about $50 per child on supplies, not including school fees or required uniforms.

She might be getting off easy.

By randomly shopping five elementary school lists, the Herald-Leader found the average cost to be $61.52.

Powell knows people who struggle more than she does.

”I have people out here who live by me who have four and five children and you can imagine how it is on them,“ she said.

While there does seem to be a pretty dramatic shift from what was on a school supply list 20 years ago, there aren't any statewide rules for supply requests, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Such decisions are made at a local level.

Money for after-school programs, extended school services and professional development are being cut, said Owens Saylor, deputy superintendent in Jessamine County. With that kind of economic tightening, he said, ”it's more important for us to utilize state dollars for text books, workbooks. We try to focus on those things.“

The Fayette County School Board recently approved setting limits on what parents can be required to spend. The policy states teacher should avoid asking for things unrelated to instruction such as cleaning supplies or ink cartridges. It limits the total elementary parents should spend per year on supplies, field trips and fees to $120 a year, and sets up consistent rates for high school and middle school fees.

Fayette County is the first school board to impose such a limit, said Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.

The Fayette policy is an effort to provide consistency across the district, said Superintendent Stu Silberman.

”We found we were going in a lot of different directions,“ he said.

The focus is on making sure the items a child brings in are ”something that a student uses,“ said Silberman. Teachers can, however, ask parents to donate extras like disinfecting wipes.

While the policy sets a spending cap for parents and teachers are suppose to be tracking expenses, if a parent feels they've exceeded the $120 limit they should bring it to the attention of the administration, Silberman said. But, the district has not made provision to pay for supplies that are excluded from back-to-school lists, he said.

Getting the right balance of supplies can be a challenge, too. Not all parents are going to bring in what is asked for, said Gayla Webb, a second grade teacher at Lexington's Clays Mill elementary. And, for example, you might ask all the boys to bring in hand sanitizer and all the girls to bring in quart plastic bags, thinking you'll get a balance. But in the end you might have five boys and 17 girls so you end up swimming in plastic clutched in germy fingers.

And, she said, no matter how she plans or how many hundreds of dollars she spends out of her pocket, she still finds herself short at some point in the year.

Part of the issue is also the way schools function, she said. It's not just kids sitting at a desk reciting what the teacher says.

”You are playing nurse maid, counselor, janitor, every role you think a mom would play. That is what we are doing,“ she said.

The common thread connecting parents, administrators and teachers is providing children with what they need to succeed. The question seems to be what's really essential?

School supply lists created by a non-profit that promotes and tracks best practices for schools, list Kleenex and sanitizers as items that elementary school parents should be asked to donate.

Obviously, districts operate differently, said David Steer, a spokesman greatschools. For example, some districts provide students with all supplies to keep consistency.

If a parent is embarrassed that she can't provide everything on the list, it can set a bad tone for the rest of the year, Steer said. To help avoid this, Steer suggest schools supply lists with the final report card or post it well in advance of the start date of school. That allows parents more time to bargain shop or spread out buying.

Sometimes there isn't good communication within a school about what is already available, said Jessica Berry, a Lexington single mom and an state level officer in the Kentucky Parent Teachers Association. Some sort of central supply inventory could be helpful, she said. It might also make it easier on parents if teachers made requests at both the beginning of school and mid-year to spread out the burden.

Both sides agree it's important, especially as everyone is feeling the economic pinch, for there to be a discussion about what kids really need and the best way to provide it.

”I think the cost of everything is going up, including sending your child to school,“ said Berry, adding that because of high gas prices it wasn't cost effective for her to drive from store to store this year to catch all the super cheap bargain prices.

But, she said, ”something needs to be done. The list keeps growing.“

As for Powell, a PTA officer at Lexington's Booker T. Academy, she's going to make sure the discussion happens at her school.

”I just think they ask for too much. Way too much.“