Getting low pay is a big problem, but having to pay work-related expenses out of pocket makes it worse.
As Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees struggle for pay raises in contract talks, one of the sleeper pocketbook issues is the growing amount educators pay to supply students with items that used to be part of the district or family budgets.
Redoubt Elementary School teacher Zada Friedersdorff informally surveyed coworkers and estimated they pay $4,000 to $6,000 a year on school supplies.
That is way above national averages.
A survey from the National School Supply and Equipment Association found that teachers spend an average of $589 of their own money on school supplies and instructional materials each year. The National Education Association estimates teachers on average spend about $400.
Friedersdorff began teaching in the district in 1978. She has watched the school supply budgets slide and teachers' outlays rise.
Around 1980, when Alaska was funding its school districts lavishly, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District gave each teachers about $2,000 as an annual allowance to buy instructional materials.
A separate fund gave each one $150 in "discretionary funds" to buy items such as treats for class parties.
In the late 1980s, when recession hit the state and prompted school funding cuts, the instructional allowance declined to $1,500. In the early 1990s, it slid to $1,000.
"As of the last six or seven years, that instructional money has been around $300, $350," Friedersdorff said.
Under the current contract, expiring in June after three years, the discretionary fund was upped from $150 to $200.
"However, and it's a very big however, the one year the $200 kicked in the principals received a memo to decrease the instructional $50. ... They just changed pockets."
The current allowances don't stretch far.
"It takes all of my money to buy one set of spelling books for my kids, and those have to be bought every year," she said.
"Anything else, it comes out of your pocket. The only break you get is you can put it on your income tax deductions."
A related issue, she admitted, is that affluent teachers are able to treat their classes to perks that others on tighter budgets cannot manage, and the children notice the differences.
Beyond educational supplies, school employees frequently bail out students with other needs. They report paying for lunches, pencils and even tampons.
Educators' soft hearts cost them money in other ways, too. As schools turn to fund raising more and more to cover costs, children are out selling candy, gift wrap or subscriptions. After parents and grandparents, the school employees are the next people they target.
"I just got hit by four kids for Jump Rope for Heart," said Nelma Cole, counseling secretary for Soldotna High School.
Friedersdorff estimated that she spends $500 per year on student fund-raisers alone.
Said Beth Martin, head secretary at SoHi, "I have a drawer full of receipts. ... We are just asking for some of our own money back."
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