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Even with Utah support, teachers still turn to donations and out-of-pocket cash for supplies

Northwest Middle School, building front and sign, Salt Lake City, Aug. 23, 2022
Martha Harris
/
KUER
Northwest Middle School teacher Toni Berger spends a lot of time outside the classroom fundraising to supplement the stipend she receives from Utah for supplies. Usually around 3 to 4 hours a week, she said.

Educators often reach into their own wallets to buy school supplies because it’s the easiest way to get the things they need for their classrooms. Other teachers spend hours trying to get donations.

In Utah, public school teachers receive some money from the Legislature to buy school supplies. The state allocated $5.5 million in the latest budget for that purpose. Utah State Board of Education Public Relations Director Mark Peterson said there was enough money for each teacher to get about $164.48 this school year.

That amount can vary, however, because individual school districts and charters set their own policies. Some teachers get more money than others. In the Washington County School District, for example, K-7 teachers receive more than teachers in grades 8-12. Districts and charter schools can also provide more money to buy school supplies, on top of the state money.

In any case, for a lot of teachers the money they get from the state and from their school is not enough to cover classroom supplies, said Utah Education Association President Renée Pinkney.

“I would say all teachers use their own money at some point,” she said. “I know that a lot of elementary teachers, they spend an awful lot of their own money.”

When Pinkney was a teacher in the Park City School District, she said she would keep the receipts for out-of-pocket classroom expenses and then deduct those from her taxes. The IRS previously only allowed educators a deduction of $250, but recently increased that number to $300. 

The principal of Escalante High School and Escalante Elementary School, Peter Baksis, estimates all of his elementary school teachers use their own money to buy supplies and 70% of his high school teachers use their own money.

“I would say down at the elementary, on average, they’re spending anywhere from $400 to $800 out of pocket for a school year,” Baksis said. “Up here [at the high school], I would say it’s a little bit less — $300 to $600.”

Pinkney said in her district, teachers could apply for grants from the Park City Education Foundation in order to get more funding. Sometimes buying it yourself was easier. As an example, Pinkney said to imagine your students need headphones.

“Writing out a whole grant takes more time than just ordering them and/or picking them up on your way home,” Pinkney said. “And then at that point, you’ve now spent your own money.”

To avoid paying out of pocket or to buy more expensive items, like a classroom set of calculators, some teachers turn to websites like AdoptAClassroom.org or DonorsChoose.org to ask for donations.

Toni Berger, a teacher at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City, has used DonorsChoose several times to get supplies for her classroom. During the school year, she said she spends about 3 to 4 hours a week outside of school working on getting donations and spreading the word about fundraisers.

“Now that I say that out loud, I’m like, I could get a part-time job and probably just fund it myself,” Berger quipped.

By her estimates, she gets about $600 or $700 worth of donations each year. But not every teacher at her school is comfortable with asking for donations.

“There were a bunch of teachers that just flat out put their foot down and were like, I am not going to beg for supplies,” she said. “I understand that mentality, I really do. It is a little degrading.”

Berger said she will post on social media when she is looking for donations, but she has blocked some friends from seeing those posts because they’ve been so generous in the past.

“DonorsChoose is really great, but it does kind of prey on my own friends and family,” Berger said. “You can only beg your parents to support your classroom so many years before they’re like, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’”

Her classroom could still function on the budget she gets from her school, but Berger said she wouldn’t be able to give students a pencil or piece of paper if they didn’t have one.

Pinkney thinks if all teachers had a well-resourced classroom, it would be easier for teachers to teach and for students to learn. But there needs to be more funding to make that happen. The state has made some investments in public education over the last two legislative sessions, but she said it is not enough to fix the “education funding drought” that the state has been in for over two decades.

“Overall, we need to have a greater investment in public schools so that every kid can come to school and learn,” Pinkney said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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