Families, teachers deal with costs amid inflation

School supplies are more expensive this year, with inflation creating a dilemma for some families as to what could be reused, such as backpacks and pencil boxes, and what needs to be purchased.

The Bartholomew County School Supply Assistance Program spent between $12,000 to $15,000 more on supplies this year than it has in previous years, said United Way Volunteer Action Center Director Alicia Monroe. The program, which provides basic, free supplies for K-12 students in need, has also seen increased participation.

Some of the items showing noticeably increased costs were Crayola products, such as colored pencil sets that had increased from $1.76 to more than $2, Monroe said. While some of the increases were small — such as a 19-cent rise on washable markers — these add up when you’re buying in mass amounts.

Diane Doup, community outreach coordinator for the Lincoln-Central Family Neighborhood Family Center, said in a previous interview that the program received help from both vendors and grant funding. Monroe said that the program would’ve struggled without this extra aid.

“However, we also typically try to purchase things that are put on clearance after the season, the fall,” said Doup in late July. “And we are concerned whether or not we’ll have enough funds to be able to make a lot of those purchases. So that’s why, if folks are still interested in donating to the school supply effort, we can still utilize a lot of those funds.”

While the program’s annual distribution event has already occurred, officials have said that they will continue to meet students’ needs on a first-come, first-served basis.

So far, the assistance program has served 1,991 students this year, and Monroe expects they’ll end up serving a total of about 2,000 — a “pretty significant increase” over last year’s number, which was just over 1,700. The 2,000 number has not been seen in some time, she said.

While the program doesn’t ask people about their reasons for seeking help, Monroe acknowledged that inflation could be a factor in increased registration.

“We do a survey afterward, and not that people weren’t thankful before, but we heard that resoundingly, ‘Thank you. Thank you. We didn’t know how we were going to buy supplies this year,’ and things like that,” Monroe said. “So I do think we are seeing more people that we maybe haven’t seen in the past. We had a lot of new registrations this year.”

Interestingly, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the cost of education and communications commodities is generally down from last summer. As of June, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for this category was down 5.7% from the last year (before seasonal adjustment).

However, the CPI increased an average of 9.1% across all categories, marking the largest 12-month increase in 40 years. Food increased 10.4%, energy increased 41.6%, and all other items were up 5.9%. Apparel — a common back-to-school need — was up 5.2%. These increased costs, together with the end of universal free meals, are likely to affect families’ budgets.

Of course, with a new year beginning, students aren’t the only ones in need of supplies. Teachers also have to restock their classrooms with materials for both everyday activities and special projects.

According to Chad Phillips, assistant superintendent of financial services for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., every calendar year budgets are allocated to the district’s buildings and programs. Administrators then allocate these funds by teacher, course, or other divisions.

“Staff members can order supplies through the district vendors using a purchase order process,” he said. “If a teacher chooses to spend their own funds and be reimbursed, they turn in receipts at the building level and the district direct deposits the funds in the teachers’ bank account.”

This does not include sales tax, which the school corporation cannot reimburse.

New budgets will be allocated in January and adjusted for inflation, Phillips said.

“Schmitt has given me a huge stipend, and they have helped me tremendously,” said fourth grade teacher Chloe Blackburn. “They gave me quite a bit of money, and the office has been super reliable and super helpful. They’ve helped me purchase this rug, those cubbies up there. They purchased those without having that come out of that stipend.”

This is Blackburn’s first year as a teacher. In planning for it, there were a lot of items to consider — anchor charts, pencil packs, Popsicle sticks and nametags, to name a few.

“Just things that you don’t think about, as a teacher, when you’re first graduating,” she said. “These are not things that I thought about but that I’m now needing, and the cost just — it adds up.”

New teachers also have other costs to grapple with, such as the fees for tests and licensing, added Blackburn. Those add up to more than $500 alone. She said that while she’s fortunate to be free of student debt and to have a husband who can help with expenses, that’s not the case for everyone.

She also feels that inflation has affected her costs.

“Working in a low-income area, a low-income school, title school, these kids come in with a lot more needs than just learning,” she added. “They have social, emotional needs. They come in hungry. They come in tired. They come in hurt. And so being able to provide everything so that not only am I teaching them but I’m supporting them to become a good citizen, a good person in general.”

Even something as simple as snacks could be helpful — and costly, given the 10.4% CPI increase in food over the past year.

Blackburn has had to pay some costs out of her own pocket. However, she also shared an Amazon wish list on social media and received help from family and friends through this method.

Another way Blackburn has sought help with supplies is through the website DonorsChoose. Public school teachers can post projects on the site and request funds to help meet their goals.

As of Aug. 5, there were almost 50 DonorsChoose projects listed by teachers in Bartholomew County, including Blackburn. While many of the funding campaigns come from BCSC, there are also six projects posted by teachers at Hope Elementary School.

Blackburn’s project, “Back to the Basics in the Classroom,” seeks to raise almost $380 for classroom necessities.

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Foundation (BCSF) has a partnership with DonorsChoose and provides matching funds for donations given to DonorsChoose projects within the district. As stated on its website, the foundation will match $1 for $1 up to $500 for any grants that are $1,000 or less.

“What I find fascinating about it is that 30% of (local) projects are funded by out of state individuals,” said BCSF director Nicole Cunningham. “And that report came last week. … There are people who are just looking for ways to help and a lot of times the educators don’t even know the individuals who have kicked in some of the money.”

However, DonorsChoose projects come with a deadline. In Blackburn’s case, she submitted the project on May 23 and will only receive her materials if the it is fully funded by Sept. 22.

According to the site, the day after a teacher’s project expires, donations marked as “friends and family” are sent to the teacher as gift codes to use on their next project. Any donations received pre-funding are returned as account credits. Donations that are not marked as friends and family are returned directly to the donor so that they can “choose how to re-apply the funding.”

In discussing ways to save on school supplies, Cunningham noted that, as a parent, she’s been avoiding brand names this year and also looking at the supplies she already has at home.

“I think right now everybody’s kind of learning to buckle down a little bit,” she said. “It is really unfortunate that right now prices are so high, because one of the things the foundation doesn’t want to see is teachers dipping into their own pockets, whether there’s inflation or not — which is why I think DonorsChoose is such a vital resource for them.”