Rachel Kilayko was at ShopKo on a sunny August day with her two grade-school daughters buying school supplies.
On the list of supplies for Jefferson Elementary were the expected Elmer’s glue and a ruler. But there were also supplies on the list that surprise some parents – a box of Kleenex and bottles of liquid soap or hand sanitizer.
“I had to buy a backpack and a folder when I went to school. Now it’s pretty much everything,” Kilayko said. “Next we’ll have to buy toilet paper,” she once said to her husband when her girls were in kindergarten.
It hasn’t come to that – yet.
As teaching becomes more complicated – with federally driven achievement goals, state mandates and tight school budgets – education basics like wiping noses must still be covered. Local teachers union leaders said teachers spend an average of $600 out of pocket to supply their classrooms with various treats and necessities. By contract, they do receive a check lumped into their pay for $225 in January to pay for classroom supplies, but it’s not enough to cover costs, teachers say.
With education taking a large chunk of state taxes, and bonds collecting cash on top of the maintenance levies, it’s not much of a stretch to wonder where all that money goes, especially since in the last several years the supply lists have grown.
“It’s seems to be a little more each year,” said Mickey Brostrom, who was also shopping for school supplies. “Eventually it’s going to be everything. Bring your own (text) books.”
Local school supply lists include items like Ziploc bags, paper towels, snack crackers, a roll of 35 mm film, $2 to $5 for a weekly magazine reader, sponges, a ream of paper, a disposable camera or a VHS tape – even a $20 Franklin Spelling Ace at a Mead elementary school.
Kilayko, who’s the treasurer for her school’s parent-teacher organization, said she has come to accept the growing list.
“It’s become normal. There isn’t a school budget for Kleenex. It’s something we are required to bring now as well as liquid soap,” Kilayko said. “Halfway through the year teachers ask for more.”
Kilayko said she paid about $20 per child for school supply lists. Considering there are almost 30,000 students at Spokane Public Schools, that means parents are spending about $600,000 for classroom supplies.
In 2002-2003, the state provided $5.1 billion for education, covering 70 percent of costs. The federal government gave $1.1 billion, or 10 percent. Local taxes in the form of levies funded 16 percent, and the remaining 4 percent came from a variety of smaller sources, usually private donations from parent groups and other organizations.
Federal funding levels have increased 48 percent in three years from $401 million in 2001-2002 to $594 million in 2004-2005.
Spokane Public Schools spends almost 78 percent of its budget on instruction costs, which come to $211 million. Administration receives 5.9 percent, or $16 million.
Randy Michaelis, chair of the teacher education department at Whitworth College, has been in the education world for more than 30 years, first as a grade-school teacher and now as an instructor of new teachers.
“Schools are in an interesting position. Parents are very aware of the amount of money they pay for property taxes,” Michaelis said. “When you think about it, we don’t get to vote on any other tax, yet we get to vote on school tax.”
It’s not like we get to vote on how many Humvees the military buys, Michaelis said.
In the grand scheme, property taxes are usually much lower than federal income taxes, but the regular appearances of levies make them high profile, he said.
The thing about the public school system is that teachers must teach whoever shows up, Michaelis said.
“As teachers, we’re the Statue of Liberty. We take all who come. Whoever shows up at the door, that’s the mission of the public school teachers,” Michaelis said.
For instance, next year’s fourth-grade class at Holmes Elementary is projected to be 25 percent special education students. These are students who are officially designated as needing extra attention or help because of developmental or behavioral problems.
In Spokane Public Schools, 13 percent of students are classified as special education, which forces the district to spend about $5 million a year from the levy to meet those state-mandated education requirements.
A common discussion in education circles is who should pay – parents or teachers – for the various needs that come up throughout the year.
“Who’s responsible for providing Kleenex for a first-grader who isn’t practicing the best hygiene?” Michaelis said. “There’s a parent out there who knew the kid had a cold. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the parent had said, ‘Gee, you’ve got a runny nose. Here’s a pocket pack of Kleenex.’ That doesn’t happen very much.”
So as teachers are confronted with these issues, they develop ways to deal with these problems, Michaelis said.
In the early 19th century, teachers asked students to bring coal and wood for the stove to heat the classroom. Students who brought fuel were allowed to sit closer to the heat. Kleenex and hand sanitizer have become the 21st century equivalent of coal as teachers stockpile boxes for the whole class, except that everyone gets to blow their nose.
“The question is ‘Where do we draw the line for what we’re responsible for?’ We have kids all the time who show up without adequate winter clothing,” Michaelis said. “Schools struggle all the time with what’s our job and what’s the parent’s job.” More often than not, people believe the solution to society’s ailments rests in the public schools, Michaelis said. And now security is a big issue in the schools, which leads to more costs.
In 2003, voters approved a $165 million capital bond, which will pay for the remodel of Rogers High School and complete rebuilds of three elementary schools. The bond also put aside $2 million for districtwide security upgrades such as security camera systems and keyless entries.
In April, a $1,200 flat television screen was installed in the entrance to the district office.
“It’s part of our pilot on the new security system,” said associate superintendent Mark Anderson.
People can see themselves on the screen and know instantly they’re being watched.
“You can see yourself. This is one of the strategies we use as a deterrent,” Anderson said.
Similar security systems will be piloted in district schools. Within two years, the security upgrades will be completed, Anderson said.
Parents may see a fancy flat screen in the district office and wonder why they’re asked to buy boxes of Kleenex.
Neil Sullivan, executive director of finance for the district, said one of the regular questions that emerges during district budget presentations is, “Why don’t you transfer money from capital projects? You have all this money, why don’t you use it?”
“It’s a good question,” Sullivan said.
There are restrictions on the funds public school systems receive. Some are earmarked for specific purposes and can’t be spent on anything else.
“If we don’t use it appropriately, we have some consequences to face,” Sullivan said. “It’s our job to follow the rules and regulations of Washington.”
At a board retreat, district leaders discussed a transportation account that has $200,000 in it that can’t be used for anything other than bus purchases and major bus overhauls, like putting in a new engine.
Sullivan said he would personally love to buy the nearly 30,000 students in the district every supply they need.
“We literally couldn’t afford it,” Sullivan said.
He does greatly appreciate the business and civic groups that gather and donate school supplies for students in the low-income neighborhoods. In and outside the district, people keep parents’ needs in mind.
Jenny Egly will teach third grade again this year at Browne Elementary School. Previously she taught fourth and fifth grade at the school. As she prepared her school supply list this year, she noticed hand sanitizer when looking at the previous teacher’s list.
“Up to that point, I had never asked for hand sanitizer,” Egly said. “I kind of questioned (the former teacher) about that. Now that I’ve done it for a year, I can see why we need it. It’s a time-saving technique.”
The younger classes have snacks at their desks. When they clean up, hand sanitizer is faster than having students line up at a sink, Egly said.
There have been parents who can’t afford to buy all the supplies, which she understands, Egly said.
“I’ve never had a parent come up and complain about a supply list,” Egly said. “I try to be real careful with the supply list.”