School daze? Lists of supplies kids bring in keep growing

Some say the lists are getting too long and too expensive and low-income parents may feel pressured.

Published August 6, 2006

It's not just kids who are going back to school this week across the Tampa Bay area.

On school buses and crammed into ever-heavier backpacks are enough school supplies to put a small nation to work.

There are pencils, of course - around 4.8-million if the region's nearly 400,000 students each bring a dozen - and crayons and glue sticks by the busload.

Then there's the unusual stuff.

Every child at Claywell Elementary School in Tampa has been asked to bring a ream or two of photocopy paper. Second-graders at Pinellas Central Elementary are prepared for anything, with tissues, wet wipes, bandages and hand sanitizer. And Mitchell Elementary in Tampa needs tennis balls.

Tennis balls?

"We're not playing tennis with them," assistant principal Shirley Porebski said with a laugh. "Our great dad's club slits the tennis balls and puts them on the chair legs to save our refinished floors."

Some think the lists are getting too long and expensive, pointing to states like California, Michigan, Vermont and Utah that have either banned the practice of sending parents on shopping trips or sharply restricted it in the elementary and middle grades.

"We're concerned about parents who don't have access to those resources," said Phyllis Kalifeh, president of the Children's Forum in Tallahassee. "School budgets are limited. But I don't think it should be put on the backs of parents or teachers."

California law spells it out plainly. Writing and drawing paper, pens, ink, blackboards and erasers, crayons, pencils - all must be part of the school budget.

Diana Rouse, director of elementary education in Lansing, Mich., said her schools also must provide basic supplies.

Asking for voluntary supplements might be permissible, but soliciting copy paper from parents wouldn't pass muster in Michigan, she said.

"If you're bringing in reams of Xerox paper, that's not for that youngster (to use)," Rouse said. "I don't feel we would ask that."

In Utah, schools can charge a fee for supplies at the middle and high school levels, but not in the lower grades.

So Dean Nielson, principal of Rock Canyon Elementary School in Provo, sends home a supply list with the law clearly printed at the top.

"The Utah Constitution prohibits fees in elementary schools," it reads. "However, inasmuch as educational funding is limited, schools are allowed to request voluntary donations."

In Florida there are no laws governing school supplies, but most schools make sure low-income families get supplies if they can't afford them, said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

"Most districts do school-supply drives before the school year begins," he said. "I've never heard of a child starting school and not, within a few days, having everything they need."

Blanton said he doesn't favor the idea of legislation that would require Florida school districts to purchase basic school supplies, saying they already provide them for needy families. "I think it's very successful the way it is," he said. "It has not been a problem."

At Azalea Elementary School in St. Petersburg, well-off parents send extra supplies for those in need, said Title 1 coordinator Lisa Bigham.

The school also has partnerships with local businesses like Shell's Restaurant, which recently dropped by unannounced with lunch for the staff and supplies for every grade level.

"Our children do not go without," Bigham said.

Over at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa, assistant principal Porebski said teachers watch for families that might need help and find a way to get it to them. And she said parents seemed to understand the shopping lists are voluntary, rather than a requirement for families regardless of their financial status.

"I really do believe that our parents are aware this is not a mandatory thing," Porebski said.

But Tammy Bennett, who collects school supplies for low-income Pasco County families with her Somebody Loves You ministry, said she's met many parents who have no such understanding.

"We had a lady, she started crying because she couldn't afford those kind of items," Bennett said. "I wouldn't say it's voluntary. I think this is what they have to have."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.