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Budgets cut, teachers dig deeper for supplies

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 5, 2011

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ROCKLAND - When English teacher Stacey DeCotis first saw her new fifth-grade Hanover classroom, it had some desks and not much else. So she went shopping for a small library of books and a host of decorations to liven things up.

Then, with the first day of school just around the corner, DeCotis paid a visit to Teachers Rule, an educational supply store in Rockland, where she stocked up on supplies and personalized items for the students’ first day.

In all, DeCotis spent several hundred dollars - all from her own pocket - to get ready for the first day of classes.

“Some people think I’m crazy to spend so much,’’ she said as she perused the aisles one morning. “But I’m not alone.’’

Public school teachers paying for classroom supplies is not new. But today’s stumbling economy has deepened the need, as budget-crunched schools look to trim costs and more students show up without even basic supplies.

Statewide, public schools spent $66.6 million on general supplies in fiscal year 2010, down from $68.3 million in 2006.

Teachers describe their out-of-pocket expense as an occupational hazard. How much they spend, and how readily, varies considerably. But with schools and families under financial strain, most feel obligated to chip in.

At the Rockland store, another dozen or so public school teachers were checking off lists of workbooks, pocket charts, and laminated desk plates. All said they were assuming the cost themselves.

Carla Manning, who runs the store with her two sisters, said teachers have been showing up in droves for workbooks, bulletin boards, and other basic supplies. “They are paying for everything these days,’’ she said. “They buy all sorts of things that should be in the school budget, but aren’t.’’

At the same time, students are showing up at school with less, and teachers don’t want their economic circumstances to hold back their learning.

“A lot of students these days can’t afford to bring a notebook,’’ said Laura Mulcahy, a fourth-grade teacher in Quincy. “I want everyone to have what they need.’’ Mulcahy estimated she spends several hundred dollars on supplies and furniture, including rugs and bookcases, beyond her $200 yearly classroom account.

At many schools, students are asked to bring an ever-expanding list of supplies to class. In Melrose, for instance, parents of fifth-graders must buy pencils (#2 Adirondacks, if possible), colored pencils, crayons, markers, highlighters, glue sticks, and Post-it Notes and tabs.

At many elementary and middle schools, particularly in wealthier towns, students are asked to bring paper towels, tissues, and sanitary wipes for classrooms, as well as tennis balls for the feet of chairs to protect floors and stop squeaking.

As teachers and parents take on a rising share of classroom costs, some worry the practice is weakening the concept of publicly funded schools.

“It’s very worrisome,’’ said Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “These are things that used to be included as part of going to public schools.’’

More parents nowadays must pay fees for their children to play sports, join clubs, and ride the bus, Toner noted. And in some towns parents have taken it on themselves to raise considerable sums for local schools.

School administrators said teachers often focus on secondary items such as posters and calendars. Yet they acknowledged that budget cuts have taken a toll on discretionary spending.

“Like any district, we’ve had to cut back,’’ said Kristine Nash, superintendent in Hanover. “But we make sure teachers have what they need.’’

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said teachers who buy supplies are predominately in younger grades and are generally buying extras to make classrooms more welcoming and personalized.

“It’s about kids feeling comfortable,’’ he said. “A lot of it goes beyond the basics.’’

Yet Pat Kelley, co-owner of The Book Vendor, which sells educational supply and used books in Dracut, said the cost of basic supplies has incrementally been shifted onto teachers in many districts.

“When a parent walks into a classroom, almost everything they see was probably bought by the teacher,’’ Kelley said.

Mike Flynn, a second-grade teacher in Southampton and school board member in Northampton, has experienced both sides of the issue.

As a teacher, Flynn has seen his budget for supplies decline from $1,000 to $300 over the past decade-plus. As a school board member, he has seen how budget difficulties have led to such cuts, which in some cases can help save teaching positions.

Most teachers pay the extra cost with little hesitation, and say they do not expect the situation to change anytime soon.

“It’s understood that with budget cuts, teachers have to do more on their own,’’ said Stephanie Powers, 25, a first-grade teacher in Whitman. “If I didn’t, the classroom wouldn’t look good, and it wouldn’t be organized.’’

Even before she began teaching, Powers saved up to furnish her first classroom, buying more than 100 books and the bookcases to put them on. With school approaching, she picked up personalized desk plates for each student, so they would feel at home on the first day.

“To me, it’s worth it,’’ she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.