Many teachers struggle to pay for classroom supplies

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    First-grade teacher Alison Reardon unpacks boxes of donated supplies for this school year at Arlington Elementary in Toledo.

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  • Editor’s note: first in an occasional series.

    Among the items first-grade teacher Alison Reardon unpacked inside her Arlington Elementary School classroom were boxes of crowdsourced materials she will distribute to students throughout the school year.

    A childhood friend fully funded Ms. Reardon’s $335 campaign, which purchased everything from pencils and crayons to construction paper and flexible seating. Many of Ms. Reardon’s students come from the inner city and will inevitably arrive at school without the necessary supplies.

    As September approaches and the start of a new school year is under way, teachers across the United States are flocking to web sites like DonorsChoose and GoFundMe to raise money to buy classroom supplies.

    DonorsChoose alone has raised $621 million for 600,000 classroom projects. There are more than 900 fund-raising projects for Ohio classrooms on the web site.

    The donation efforts come as many teachers struggle to make ends meet and can’t afford the added burden of funding their own classrooms.

    WATCH: First grade teacher Alison Reardon prepares her classroom for the first day of school

    “The beginning of the year is hard because I want to do things with my family and take a mini-weekend vacation,” Ms. Reardon said. “But I can’t because I’ve spent so much money on stuff for my classroom. It hinders my own children because I can’t take them on a road trip. We can’t stay the weekend at Kalahari [indoor water park] because I can’t afford it.”

    Ms. Reardon, a single mother of two, estimates she spends between $1,000 and $1,500 of her teacher’s salary each year to buy classroom supplies.

    On average, Ohio public school teachers earned $58,849 during the 2016-17 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education. But a teacher’s salary varies depending on education level and experience.

    The average starting salary for a teacher in Perrysburg with a bachelor’s degree is $39,045, compared to $45,487 for a first-year teacher with a master’s degree.

    According to a U.S. Department of Education survey released earlier this year, 94 percent of public school teachers reported paying for classroom supplies without reimbursement during the 2014-15 school year.

    Evidence of the trend litters posts on websites like DonorsChoose and GoFundMe.

    Terry McKnight, an elementary school teacher in Rossford, launched a crowdfunding campaign to purchase classroom materials including an electric pencil sharpener.

    “My students have to go across the hall to use another teacher’s pencil sharpener,” the teacher wrote on DonorsChoose. “If we had one in the classroom, it would be beneficial so students would have easy access to the sharpener in our own classroom.”

    At Toledo Public Schools, teachers at Arlington Elementary and other buildings receive some assistance for supplies from the district and the teachers’ union. The amount varies depending on grade level, but Ms. Reardon receives $100 a year from TPS and another $70 to $90 from the union.

    Ohio teachers spend an estimated $600 a year of their own money on classroom supplies, according to a report state Auditor Dave Yost released last month. 

    Mr. Yost in his report recommended that all crowdfunding campaigns be approved by an administrator, donations have school board approval, and donations are sent directly to schools, not teachers. He concluded his report by urging school districts to implement a crowdfunding policy.

    Most northwest Ohio school districts have an established crowdfunding policy in place that requires pre-approval from the superintendent before starting a crowdfunding campaign.

    Teachers are allowed to deduct up to $250 worth of classroom purchases on their federal taxes each year. House Republicans voted to eliminate the tax credit in 2017, but the provision remained in the final version of the GOP tax bill.

    Still the burden continues, teachers and union officials said. That includes challenges posed by the changing technological landscape, said Kevin Dalton, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. 

    “Our need for buying things has expanded from crayons, paper, and notebooks to online apps and mobile technology,” he said. “This is what teachers need to engage students.” 

    Staci Leach retired from Maumee Schools this summer after 35 years with the district. She figured she spent about $700 a year to fill her classroom with the essentials.

    “[My husband and I] would go to Costco, and I would grab an extra case of applesauce or granola bars,” Mrs. Leach said. “Extra pens and pencils, an electric pencil sharpener because the crank-handle ones don’t work. Or a three-hole punch. It was added in with our weekly budget.”

    Early on in Mrs. Leach’s career, she was given as much as $75 annually from the district to fund her classroom. She said the stipend was a big help, but the amount dwindled over time. Mrs. Leach said the practice ended about 10 years ago when she was receiving $12. She knows several teachers in the district who took to DonorsChoose looking for help.

    It all compounded with pain felt over teacher pay and collective bargaining, Mrs. Leach said.

    “When I first started, it was normal to get a 4 percent raise,” she said. “Then it got to the point where you were excited to get 2 percent if you didn't get a freeze or some kind of cut with health-care increases involved.”

    Ms. Reardon said many students who transfer in during the school year arrive with nothing. In the past, she has purchased backpacks, lunchboxes, pencils, glue sticks, and anything else they need to participate.

    “The majority of the things I buy come from my own pocket, and they will not refund you for many of the activities we do either,” Ms. Reardon said. “That really puts a hindrance on my finances, but I do it for the kids because I love them, I care about them, and I want them to come here and be successful students.”

    Contact Jay Skebba at, 419-376-9414, or on Twitter @JaySkebba.