After watching the family bank account shrink, Jesse Maloney’s wife asked him to save receipts for all of the school supplies he was buying for his students at the Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul.
Maloney estimated his tab for the year might be $500. His wife knew better.
“After it pushed up over $1,000 and we were only three-quarters of the way through the year, I stopped keeping the receipts,” said Maloney, a science teacher.
As schools across Minnesota prepare for the 2014-15 year, teachers — just like students — are stocking up on school supplies, buying everything from pencils to hand sanitizer.
It’s not cheap.
School districts rarely cover the full cost of a year’s supplies. So teachers reach into their own pockets to buy materials for projects, spare supplies for needy students and classroom decorations — typically spending about $1,000 of their own money each year on supplies, according to national estimates.
“I don’t think most people who aren’t teachers understand that it comes out of our pockets,” said Karolyn Shelstad, a Bloomington middle school teacher.
With student poverty levels climbing and school budgets tightly drawn, many teachers say they’ve been bearing even more of the cost.
Most do so without complaint. Helping needy kids is part of the calling to teach, they say.
But educators acknowledge the financial pinch, which can be especially acute for new teachers, many of whom inherit classrooms that contain little more than desks, chairs and a wastebasket.
“You need a lot of the things that don’t last forever — crayons, pencils, paper towels, Kleenex, hand sanitizers, erasers,” said Christine Pilney, a second-year teacher at LIFE Prep in Minneapolis. “And just building up a book library for the classroom — that was one of my biggest challenges last year, to build a whole library in my classroom. It adds up very fast.”
While many local organizations help needy students buy school supplies, far fewer directly aid teachers.
In the Twin Cities, however, there are at least two teacher “free stores,” places where teachers can stock up on donated supplies for their classroom and students.
The national Kids in Need Foundation operates 32 resource centers, including one in Minneapolis where teachers can get everything from backpacks to sanitary wipes.
Since taking over the Minneapolis store from a previous organization in 2012, the foundation has helped about 3,400 teachers in about 100 high-poverty schools, mostly in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Teachers can shop twice a year and get $450 worth of supplies per trip.
Companies like Elmer’s Products, 3M, Bic and Jo-Ann Fabrics donate the supplies to Kids in Need, which has offices in Minnesota and in Dayton, Ohio. Last year, the Twin Cities center gave away about $1.5 million in products.
In July, Target announced it would donate $25 million in supplies to Kids in Need as part of a monthlong “buy one, give one” campaign.
“It was huge,” Dave Smith, Kids in Need’s executive director, said of the Target donation. “To put it in perspective, last year the Kids in Need Foundation gave away a little more than $70 million worth of product. This Target give is worth $25 million.”
Patricia Hampton, a third-grade teacher at Learning for Leadership Charter School in Minneapolis, has turned to Kids in Need for about 17 years.
She gets about $150 from her school for supplies for the year. After that’s gone, she’s on her own.
“My favorite things [at the Kids in Need site] would be the notebook paper and the composition books,” she said. “And every year I fall in love with Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. They last forever.”
Maloney said the benefit of working with Kids in Need extends far beyond the paper and pencils they supply him with each year. For starters, it frees up his budget enough to cover other materials, such as those used in experiments that can ignite a student’s interest in science. Perhaps even more important, he said, his students learn the value of kindness with each donated supply.
“A lot of people [say something like], ‘Really, a family can’t afford pencils? Or notebooks? Really? They’re going out for pizza tonight. What the heck?’, ” he said. “When I think the better question to ask is, ‘If we don’t do anything to help these kids, who’s going to?’ ”
Taking a slightly different approach to helping Twin Cities teachers is Companies to Classroom, a Bloomington-based nonprofit that accepts donated surplus or used office supplies.
The group, founded in 2005, runs a free store that last year served 3,400 teachers, mostly from the Bloomington, Shakopee and Richfield school districts. In October, teachers from Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center will be invited to Companies to Classroom’s store.
While helping local teachers and students is the group’s primary objective, it also promotes recycling.
When companies move or downsize, they often find themselves with extra paper, binders, paper clips — all things teachers can use, said Cary Weatherby, the group’s executive director.
Weatherby marvels at the creative projects teachers have devised with donated office supplies. Colored rubber bands have been turned into Chinese jump ropes. Compact discs have found their way into science experiments. And packing materials have been repurposed into desk trays.
“A teacher comes to this wall and you see the wheels start to turn,” Weatherby said. “They say, ‘Oh my gosh, this would be perfect for …’ ”
Shelstad, a teacher at Olson Middle School in Bloomington, routinely steers colleagues, particularly new teachers, to the Companies to Classrooms store.
There, she’s obtained free pencils, paper and three-ring binders, which can sell for as much as $10 at some stores.
In recent years, she’s noticed an increase in the number of students who come to schools without supplies.
“Some kids come to school with no money for food and no school supplies,” she said. “It’s a tough thing to see, especially in middle school. But I’m not going to let those things prevent them from learning. No teacher would.”