School Supplies

The first day of school is an exciting time for children and their families alike.  But prior to that some families are confronted with sticker-shock -- the cost of school supplies.  Lansing Superintendent of Schools Chris Pettograsso says her leadership team has been looking at how the price of school supplies is impacting Lansing families and ways the School District can mitigate it.

"We're hearing there is a growing concern about the cost of materials and supplies for families, for students on a yearly basis, particularly K-6," Pettograsso told the Board of Education Monday.  "One of the frustrating things, especially for families, is when they do go out and extend themselves and buy these supplies, and then, come June they get a lot back.  So they become frustrated with the process.  The biggest impact is at the elementary level.  In the high school you're looking at when they need a specific calculator.  That's pricey, but there are resources for that as well."

Pettograsso estimates elementary school families pay about $40 to $55, and middle school families spend $60 plus the cost of backpacks, with more for high school students whose classes have specific needs such as graphing calculators required for math classes.  One way Lansing families save on the cost of school supplies is by taking advantage of a PTSO fundraiser called 'SchoolKidz Supply Kits' in which they sell a supply box for between $35 and $45.  That funds the PTSO's 'Pack-a-Backpack program' that provides free supplies to students in need.  That program provided supplies for 87 children in the 2016-17 school year.

Programs like that address a growing need in Lansing.  Pettograsso asked data Coordinator Angie Russel to do a ten-year analysis of family circumstances to get an accurate picture of how many Lansing students may need help with extra school expenses.  She said that the way the data is collected can be deceiving.  For example, homeless or migrant families may technically be above the poverty line, but that means a family of four earns more than $23,000 per year, hardly a lucrative wage.  The results showed a dramatic rise in those who need help, based on students who qualify for state reduced or free lunch programs.

"Reduced lunch has not significantly increased," Pettograsso said.  "Free lunch has doubled, and our population used to be much higher ten years ago.  For example ten years ago the high school had 450 students, and had a free rate of about 10%.  Now we have about 320 students and the free rate is about 25%."

That translates to abut 45 students ten years ago, and 80 students now, despite the lower school population.  Pettograsso said that part of the issue came from budget cuts that took a significant bite out of the supplies budget.

"I think it was in 2009 we just said we're cutting school supplies by $50,000.  And that was by building," she said. "That was when we had a huge reduction.  It shifted to the community.  We haven't added that back, so we're looking at adding a little bit more into our budget for that."

In addition to increasing the supplies budget somewhat Pettograsso said her district leadership team is talking to teachers, asking them to take a new look at what supplies actually need to be required, and said the District is also looking at other ways to reduce the costs.

'There are some schools that buy a lot every year and then sell it at cost," she said. "That would be cumbersome for us.  We don't have the space.  But we're looking at that.  Then we talked about ways we could limit the supply list.  We certainly ask all of our teachers to really understand the concern and look at the need.  One of the things we always ask for from families are dry-erase markers, probably one of the most expensive things to purchase, and we ask for quite a few of them per child.  What if we just say we're taking that off and we will absorb that?"

Nation-wide school districts look to the 'Huntington Backpack Index', which analyses classroom supply costs and school fees that are passed on to parents across the eight Midwestern states the Huntington Bank operates in.  For the current school year the Index says parents can expect to pay:
  • $662 for elementary school children
  • $1,001 for middle school children
  • $1,489 for high school students
It should be noted that those figures include fees, which are harder to track in Lansing since, for example, programs such as cheerleading were off-loaded from the school district to the Town Recreation Department, which charges modest fees for the activities.  Nevertheless, Lansing appears to cost well below the school district averages the Huntington Index monitors.

"We are always trying to determine what the right amount is if any for families to provide school supplies," Pettograsso said. "We recognize it can be a financial burden and hope to find a good balance for families.  We have many supports in place but have difficulty getting the word out.  We'll certainly figure out a way to get more input.  I know it's been a growing concern over the years."