Schools going back to the basics to help curb the cost of supplies

Local organizations helping fill the gaps as students prepare to return to the classroom

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With less than three weeks left of summer break, the rush to stock up on tiny pink erasers, Ticonderoga pencils and reams of three-hole-punch paper has begun.

For many parents, Iowa’s annual sales tax holiday — which features no sales tax on clothing and footwear items less than $100 on Friday and Saturday — is welcome relief as they head to stores to complete their back-to-school shopping before most public schools open their doors to students on Aug. 23.

For some, the list of items most students need and their associated price tags can feel daunting.

“School supplies can get really pricey, especially in an elementary school,” said Laura Campbell, executive director of the faith-based charity Marion Cares. “Sometimes we overlook the need here in Marion. I just talked to a dad who expressed he may have been able to provide most of the items on the list, but it would have made things at home pretty tight.”

Charities, community organizations and school staff help fill in the gaps for families that can’t afford all the items on students’ lists. Marion Cares facilitates a backpack drive that has families adopt students anonymously and purchase their supplies. Many of those backpacks — nearly 300 in all — will be distributed during cookouts this weekend, Campbell said.

On Thursday, the Cedar Rapids Police Protective Charity hosted its annual “Cops and Kids” program to assist children in need with back-to-school supplies. Through the event, held at Target, 1030 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, more than 100 kids received supplies, backpacks, shoes and new clothing.

Other organizations and churches in the Cedar Rapids metro area host similar drives.

“Many of our families will access those because we do have a high percentage of parents who can’t afford it,” said Cindy Stock, principal of Grant Wood Elementary in Cedar Rapids. “Because you have on top of that (supply list) clothing and shoes and all those other things you want. We’re fortunate in our community for the awareness of the costs.”

Besides formal backpack drives, Stock said residents of the school’s neighborhood on the southeast side often drop off packed bags for children.

In recent years, some schools in the area have pared down their lists to include only what students need — think folders and crayons, not extra boxes of tissues or Play-Doh — in the hopes of addressing that financial strain. The shorter lists also help standardize students’ supplies across the district’s schools.

“It’s the very basic things that all kids in elementary school can benefit from,” Stock said.

While some Eastern Iowa schools’ lists have been trimmed, trips out for back-to-school shopping can often result in hauls worth hundreds.

Parents nationally reported spending more this year than last on school supplies, according to industry analysts at The NDP Group, a market research company. While local school officials and community organizers estimate basic needs cost about $45, the national group’s data puts school supply spending at $97 per person — with apparel, art supplies, electronics, accessories and sports equipment putting total spending upward of $700.

Impulse buys often drive school spending up. According to NDP, most back-to-school shopping, about 56 percent, still takes place in brick-and-mortar stores. Parents are also doing the bulk of their shopping in August and September, rather than earlier in the summer months.

“Even though we start to panic when stores start to put school stuff out in June, and we’re like, ‘it’s barely summer,’ it’s better if you spread it out,” said Stock, who said she finished up school shopping for her own children who are starting sixth grade.

For parents still ticking supplies off their children’s lists, grabbing a good deal can be helpful for schools, said Matthew May, a spokesman for the Linn-Mar Community School District. With community help, he said no students go without the tools they need to learn.

“The parents in our district are very giving,” May said. “Sometimes you‘re just out shopping and you only need a few things, but something’s on sale. So you send the child with a pack of 10, and those supplies are just utilized by the rest of the classroom.”

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