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Back to school, out of supplies

Systems turn to cash-strapped families for help

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 6, 2008
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Along with stocking their children's backpacks, parents are increasingly helping teachers fill their cash-strapped classrooms with glue sticks, markers, hand sanitizers, toilet paper, and other basic materials once covered by school budgets.

Many teachers sent out the pleas last month before the first day of school as part of welcoming letters. Others handed out the lists last week on opening day. And a growing number, such as those at Chelmsford's Harrington Elementary this year, posted requests on school websites, saving money on postage and paper.

The lists are another telltale sign of how budget-cutting in recent years has affected the pocketbooks of parents, coming on top of the hundreds of dollars they spend annually on ever-increasing fees for school lunches, sports, after-school programs, and buses.

With household budgets this year stretched thin by rising grocery and fuel prices, parents are questioning how much longer they can keep giving.

"Parents are starting to feel like a piggy bank," said Holly Ewart-O'Neall, the mother of a second-grader and cochairman of the Worcester Arts Magnet School's parent-teacher group, which experienced a decline last year in fund-raising revenue that sometimes goes toward supplies.

School districts, wanting to avoid cuts to staff and programs, have been spending less on classroom supplies and materials during this economically turbulent decade. Statewide, school district expenditures on instructional supplies and materials, including textbooks, dropped 4.3 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2007 to $334.7 million, despite a dramatic increase in the cost of many items.

"It's a sad state of affairs," said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "I'm surprised cleaning fluids and things like that are on the lists. That is going to another level and is more suggestive of how bad things are getting."

In many cases, teachers refer to the supply requests as "wish lists," but the items are hardly extravagant.

Teachers at schools in Chelmsford, Newburyport, and Salem, like many others statewide, have solicited donations of sharpened No. 2 pencils, zipper-lock sandwich bags, baby wipes, paper cups, tissues, low-odor markers, or ink cartridges for printers.

"I kind of like the lists," said Laurie Naughton, a Newburyport mother with three children in the city's school system. "At least I know what they need instead of me guessing what they need and stocking up on that item. I don't mind pitching in."

At Harrington Elementary in Chelmsford, many parents drop off the materials when they meet their child's teacher at a "Meet and Greet" the day before school starts. The donated items tend to pile up on tables in some classrooms.

But Chelmsford officials, like those in other districts, stress that the donation of supplies is purely optional.

"Children are not penalized if their parents don't bring in any items," said Colleen Beaudoin, principal at Harrington Elementary. "We know families are paying more for food, fuel, and clothes. You don't ever want to see a family not able to afford the essentials. And it is difficult on families to have all these additional school fees."

The lists started proliferating earlier this decade after the nation's economy went into a tailspin after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, educators say.

Teachers compiled the lists in response to parents who wanted to contribute items to the classroom rather than leave it to teachers to spend hundreds of dollars of their own money each year on classroom materials.

"We feel bad about doing it," said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union. "Those are things that should be provided for the classroom by the school districts."

But some parents and school leaders are concerned that the practice of parent donations could widen an equity gap between wealthy and poor schools, even within the same district.

In Worcester, parents at only a handful of the city's 40 schools have the financial resources to help out with supplies, said Brian Allen, the district's chief financial officer.

Tight finances, he said, have forced the city to reduce spending on supplies and materials to $63 per student last year, down from $130 in fiscal year 2001.

Parents in recent years have brought in toilet paper at two elementary schools, noticing volume was running low in lower-grade classrooms equipped with bathrooms, some parents said. Parents also have supplied bottled water at one school during hot weather because the water bubblers were broken.

"I see a bleak future if public funding for school districts doesn't change," said Deb Steigman, a mother of two Worcester elementary school children and a team coordinator for that city's chapter of Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group. "I don't know how much longer parents can chip in. Families are financially strapped by food and fuel costs, and we are being asked to do more."

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