Kristen Hoffman, a kindergarten teacher at Thomas Benton Elementary School, spent her summer preparing for the upcoming school year at yard sales, retail store sales and sometimes behind the sewing machine.
Hoffman is like many teachers who pay out of pocket for classroom extras.
Teachers in their first year tend to spend the most, said Kim Aitkens, who teaches third grade at Benton.
The Columbia Public School District, parent-teacher associations, city retailers and the federal government have some programs to help reduce the load on teachers. Teachers can deduct up to $250 from their taxes for classroom expenses, Aitkens said.
But starting Jan. 1, 2004, that deduction will be gone, said Kris Moore, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service.
The deduction was part of the Job Creation and Worker Assistance Act passed in March 2002 as an economic stimulus. Teachers, counselors and aides who work more than 900 hours in a school year could deduct expenses effective Jan. 1, 2002, according to an IRS press release.
Full-time teachers in Columbia’s public schools work at least 1,295 hours, said Mary Laffey, director of human resources.
Aitkens, who didn’t use the tax deduction last year because she had already spent the money, said removal of the deduction treats teachers unfairly.
“I don’t feel like we don’t get anything in return — we get the satisfaction of teaching our kids and watching them learn,” Aitkens said. “But the government loves to tell us how to do our jobs and we never get a break.”
Hoffman said that not having the deduction would make a difference but that teachers would still buy what they need regardless of tax assistance.
Most of teachers’ expenses are for decorations, carpet and storage facilities for their classrooms. The other big expenses are books and, in the upper grades, more pencils and folders, Aitkens said.
“Pencils are always an issue because they disappear,” she said. “I’ve been to garage sales before where I bought boxes of pencils, used pencils.”
Books, however, are big items for elementary teachers in all grade levels, Aitkens said. “You have to buy books every year, but the first few years you buy a lot of books unless you bought them in college,” she said. “You want to have books to share with the children.”
The district helps pay for books in the language arts departments with money from out-of-state insurance companies, Cedar Ridge Elementary Principal Barbara Stratton said.
The Cedar Ridge and Benton PTAs also give money to teachers for supplies. Aitkens said that it was nice of them to do what they could but that the check is only a fraction of what teachers spend.
Aitkens, who has taught for six years and spent $1,000 her first year, said teachers find ways to save money on supplies through store sales, garage sales and trading with other teachers. She said she spent between $150 and $200 this year.
Hoffman also cut costs by sewing curtains for her room over the summer. The school district supplies educational tools such as number lines and alphabet charts. The teachers decorate their bulletin boards, which can cost up to $50.
Aitkens said the reason teachers spend as much as they do is to make their initially bare classrooms into comfortable learning environments.
“If you truly want to be the teacher you can be, you want to make a safe environment for your kids — the most important thing is the kids,” Aitkens said. “You want them to have a comfortable place to read and take risks. You want to do what you can to make them comfortable.”