A hard economics lesson

Buying school supplies means making tough choices for some families

91313_backtoschoolpic            It is an annual rite that signals the end of summer and approach of fall — buying supplies for students returning to school.

For some families, however, what should be an exciting time instead is a budget juggling act forcing some to decide what’s important — paying bills or buying their child’s school supplies.

“I find case families that use Valley Outreach services have to make choices,” said agency director Christine Tubbs. “Our families are making (economic) choices every day.”

Several social service agencies tried to help struggling families in August through the “Stuff the Bus” school supply drive. United Way of Washington County-East and Valley Outreach both appealed to the community for donations and according to officials with both agencies, St. Croix Valley residents responded.

“The Stuff the Bus campaign was a huge success,” said Jessica Roller of UWWC-E. “We were able to collect over 830 items with an estimated value of $1,629.55.”

Roller said the donated school supplies were inventoried, separated and delivered to Lily Lake and Oak Park elementary schools, Stillwater and Oak-Land junior high schools and Stillwater Area High School.

“The school district (Independent School District 834) helped to determine the schools whose students were most in need and made our decisions based on the types of supplies that were collected,” Roller said. “Each school received two or more boxes of supplies that are available to their students immediately.”

FamilyMeans, which runs youth programs at the Cimarron mobile home park in Lake Elmo and in Landfall, handed out supply-filled backpacks at both locations, according to agency spokeswoman Jennifer Kovacich.

“About 100 kids received backpacks, many of them filled with supplies,” she said. “Backpacks and supplies were donated by MPR, a local church group, a FamilyMeans volunteer and other individual donors. A work group of 3M employees also packed academic-enrichment kits for both the children and teens within the FamilyMeans program.”

Backpacks at Cimarron were handed out during a community-wide ice cream social, Kovacich said. Backpacks were collected and given directly to children living in Landfall, she added.

Purchasing school supplies can be daunting for families not just from a financial standpoint, but also from the amount and kind of supplies needed for their children. The kind and number of school supplies can vary not only by grade, but also by school and classroom.

An ISD 834 spokeswoman said teachers at each grade level determine what supplies their students should have.

Some parents also point out that they not only must buy their children’s school supplies, but buy classroom supplies, too. Doug Maddox of Stillwater has two children in an ISD 834 elementary school and will buy sanitizing wipes, facial tissues, small plastic bags and other classroom-related supplies.

Maddox’s 9-year-old daughter, Jenna, started fourth grade and his 5-year-old daughter, Jillian, entered kindergarten.

“Jillian’s just starting school this year so she had a pretty good-sized school supply list of things she needed, but not too bad,” said Doug Maddox. “And Jenna’s going into fourth grade this year, and her teacher is requiring us not to go out and shop for things, but just give them money, which works for us.”

However, Maddox said his oldest daughter still needed some supplies to start school.

“A lot of stuff that Jenna needs are different than what Jenna already has,” he said.

By the time Jenna and Jillian Maddox returned to school Sept. 3, their father had a rough estimate of how much the family spent on the girls’ supplies.

“We figured we will spend around $100 each on school supplies this year,” he said.

And it’s not just school supplies parents must buy. The start of school also means new clothes for many growing children. Maddox said he and his wife try to spread out clothing purchases for their daughters.

“We buy clothes throughout the year. We don’t wait for school to start to buy clothes,” he said. “But yeah, we figure we’ll spend a couple hundred of dollars on each of them. We started shopping a few weeks ago, right after we got our list online. We were a little proactive this year. Usually, we wait for the last minute.”

Tubbs said the Valley Outreach Clothing Closet will get more visits from families looking for school clothes for their children.

“Yes, we see a huge uptick for the need of the Clothing Closet a week before school starts,” she said.

Although school supply costs are slightly lower as students move to junior and senior high schools, rising activity fees have some families feeling financially pinched, especially if more than one child is involved in activities such as athletics, band or orchestra.

The Youth Advantage group was established in 2010 with the goal of raising funds to provide help to struggling families with children in extra-curricular activities pay fees.

“Our numbers have gone up each year since we started,” said YA director Suzanne Block.

Block said YA fee assistance is based on whether a student is in the ISD 834 free lunch or reduced-fee lunch programs. Students in the free lunch program receive more fee assistance, she said. YA assistance for students in the reduced-fee lunch program is on a 50-50 split; YA pays half the fee and the student’s family picks up the other half, she added.

Block notes that about 1,500 to 1,700 ISD 834 students qualify for either free or reduced-fee lunches. She said YA is currently helping more than 300 students.

Although YA primarily deals with extra-curricular activity fees, Block said the agency has “slipped into the school day” by providing musical instruments to students in band or orchestra. She added that YA provided musical instruments to 36 students this school year.

Block said YA also does sports equipment drives with groups such as the Stillwater Area Hockey Association and Stillwater Area Lacrosse Association.

Both Block and Tubbs said that although the economy is slowly recovering from the last recession, many St. Croix Valley families continue struggling financially. For some, buying school supplies can break fragile budgets.

“In the suburbs particularly, the need for our services is still increasing. It’s not slowing down,” Tubbs said. “The whole economic downtown seems to be on the bright side, that’s not true for some families. While they can find work, it’s not at a livable wage.”

“We’re expecting to see growth because we just started in 2010 and families are still learning about us,” Block added. “We’re expecting to see continued growth.”

Staff writers Avery Cropp and Amanda White contributed to this report. Contact Erik Sandin at [email protected]

Activity fees charged ISD 834 students to participate in junior and senior high school extra-curricular activities.
Adapted Soccer, $115
Girls Tennis, $165
Boys Soccer, $180
Girls Soccer $180
Boys Cross Country, $180
Girls Cross Country, $180
Girls Swimming and Diving, $210
Volleyball, $210
Football, $210
Girls Alpine Skiing, $195
Boys Alpine Skiing, $195
Girls Nordic Skiing, $195
Boys Nordic Skiing, $195
Boys Swimming and Diving $210
Wrestling, $210
Gymnastics, $210
Boys Basketball, $240
Girls Basketball, $240
Boys Hockey, $285
Girls Hockey, $285
Boys Tennis, $165
Boys Golf, $180
Synchronized Swimming, $180
Boys Track, $195
Girls Track, $195
Boys LaCrosse, $195
Girls LaCrosse, $195
Baseball, $210
Softball, $210
Ninth Grade
Volleyball, $180
Football, $180
Boys Soccer, $150
Girls Soccer, $150
Boys Basketball, $180
Girls Basketball, $180
Softball, $150
Baseball, $150
7th Grade: $75 per sport
8th grade: $80 per sport
SAHS club-activity fees
School sponsored club, $100
Fine Arts Activity, $100
Independent provider fee, $50

List courtesy of ISD 834