Colorado Families Struggle to Pay Skyrocketing Back-To-School Costs

Tens of thousands of students will stream back to Colorado classrooms this month, their backpacks loaded with pencils and paper, binders and ballpoint pens — and, increasingly, items that schools used to supply: tissues, cotton balls, hand wipes, ziplock bags.

The price tag to equip one child can easily reach $100 to $150, school officials and parents say. And that doesn’t include clothes, shoes and specialty items like calculators.

“It’s a big change” from the past, said Lorraine Alcott, who volunteers at an annual supply giveaway for Jefferson County Public Schools students. “It just seems that our (supply) lists just get longer and longer.”

Every student at one school was asked to bring five dozen pencils on their first day to bolster the school’s dwindling supply, Alcott said.

Budget cutbacks have forced schools to ask parents to provide supplies that formerly were paid for by the district, said Barbara Penning, director of volunteer programs and in-kind donations for the nonprofit Action Center. The Action Center, which organizes the school supply distribution event for Jefferson County families, served more than 5,000 students last year.

“But that’s just a drop in the bucket of what we really need,” Penning said.

At least 30,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in Jefferson County schools, the state’s second-largest school district with more than 86,000 students. They come from families who are particularly hard hit by higher rents and health care costs, Penning said.

“They sign a lease two years ago and now the lease goes up 30 percent,” Penning said. “And then, all of a sudden, they get a huge school list that grows longer every year.”

Esmeraldo Franco patiently waited in line this week during the Action Center giveaway at Stevens Elementary School. She got two colorful, superhero-themed backpacks full of crayons, colored pencils and paper for her two daughters, ages 5 and 7.

Estrella Romero tries on new shoes with her new friend Natalie Guard on Aug. 5, 2017 in Denver. The women’s group Rocky Mountain Active 20-30 put on the event to shop for back-to-school supplies for low-income students in the Denver area.

This is the second year Franco has stopped by the giveaway, and she’s grateful it exists.

“The school list is so long and expensive,” Franco said. “I don’t know what I’d do without these people. And my daughters get so happy when they get their backpacks. It’s almost like Christmas for them.”

Parents can cut costs with savvy shopping — many stores offer discounts on school supplies in late summer. But rising fees for activities like sports and music “represents an ongoing burden that can’t be lessened by merely shopping around,” said George Mokrzan, chief economist for Huntington Bank.

In the last decade, the price of supplies and extracurricular activities increased by 88 percent for elementary school students, 81 percent for middle school students and 68 percent for high school students, according to Huntington Bank’s latest Backpack Index, an annual survey of the cost of school supplies and expenses. The Backpack Index is derived by compiling a supply list from a cross-section of schools and attaching costs based on moderately priced items at online retailers.

The BackPack Index shows that parents can expect to pay $662 for one elementary school child for the 2017-18 school year, a 1 percent increase from last year. The price increases to $1,001 for a middle schooler and $1,489 for a high school student.

Jefferson County schools superintendent Jason Glass said Colorado’s school funding formulas leave districts with few options to passing supply costs to parents.

Measures such as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment prevent schools from netting state and local tax revenue to help supply classrooms, said Glass, and that forces schools to ask parents to bear more educational costs.

“Unfortunately, those passing on of fees and supplies disproportionately impacts working class and other families struggling with their family income,” Glass said.

Technological advancements present another financial hurdle for schools and families. Some families rely on schools to provide computer time for their children, skills increasingly needed to function in society.

“Some schools have to share their technology — a computer is brought in on a cart and kids get some limited access,” Glass said.

In Denver Public Schools, $10 million in bond funds is supplying laptops for 9,000 students this school year. The effort is aimed at encouraging girls and minorities to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, DPS officials said.

Many businesses, nonprofits and individuals are stepping up to help cash-strapped families meet their back-to-school needs. More than 400 volunteers donated their time to help run the Action Center school supply giveaway in Jefferson County. They sorted supplies and stuffed backpacks and then formed a well-oiled machine to check IDs and match students with the appropriate school gear during the weeklong event.

One of the biggest donors to the Jeffco effort is local home builder Cardel Homes, which began donating as many as 3,000 backpacks a year to the Action Center in 2014.

“Before then, we could only give out one backpack for one family, but Cardel stepped up and made sure every child got a backpack,” Penning said. “A lot of tears of joy were shed when a child gets their own backpack.”

Kids around metro Denver are getting help gearing up for school. Jewish Family Service distributed 300 backpacks filled with supplies to children around the region. Students in Denver Public Schools are getting back-to-school help from a variety of sources. Volunteers from Rocky Mountain Active 20-30 partnered with DPS’s Discovery Link program this month to take 100 elementary and middle school students from low-income families shopping at the Stapleton Walmart Supercenter.

Each student was paired with a volunteer and given a $100 budget to shop for school clothes and shoes. They were also given a backpack filled with school supplies.

This was the seventh year Rocky Mountain Active and Discovery Link organized the shopping spree, Amanda Slater Burgie said. She is president of RMA, a group of professional women who work on youth-related issues in the community.

Getting new stylish clothes is a confidence builder for the kids, Burgie said. But there was a practical side of the shopping as well. “We used basic budgeting skills, we had to figure out with the money they had, how much they spent and how much they had left for shopping,” she said.

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