Paper and pencils

Shelby County teachers are given $100 for classroom supplies. But that’s not nearly enough.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

For Crescent Bynum, a culinary arts instructor at Hamilton High School, the $100 she receives from Shelby County Schools at the start of the year buys some pencils and paper.

It doesn’t buy cleaning supplies for her kitchen classroom. It doesn’t buy extra food to prepare when her class runs out. It doesn’t buy chef coats for students who can’t afford to pay for them. Bynum pays for all of that out of her own pocket.

“It’s just the way it is that inner-city school teachers spend more than others because of (lack of) parent participation,” Bynum said. “We don’t receive many of the supplies we need from parents or the district, so we buy it. You know you’re not going to be reimbursed. But if you need something, do you sit back and go without? You go get what you need to teach.”

Bynum is typical of public school teachers in her Memphis district — and across the nation. Most dig into their personal resources to pay for classroom supplies and to help students with their needs.

To help address the gap, the Memphis district on Friday unveiled its Teacher Tool Box, a supplies depot where teachers at high-need schools can obtain free supplies starting next month. The resource is housed at the district’s central offices at 160 S. Hollywood St., and teachers must make appointments to visit. Priority will be given to teachers who work in priority schools, which are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee in terms of academic achievement.

“While visiting more than 100 classrooms last year, I had teachers tell me they needed more school supplies — that what they need often comes out of their pocket,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said at Friday’s ribbon-cutting event.

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The United Education Association, an affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association, also hosted a “teacher survival store” in July in Memphis, inviting new teachers to use monopoly money distributed at training events to purchase supplies. The idea was to ease the burden on new teachers tho want to “look like you have everything you need, even before you’ve had a paycheck,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Shelby County teacher and TEA affiliate leader.

Shelby County Schools allocates $100 to teachers for individual school supplies at the start of the year. Special education teachers are given a little more, and for some schools, an additional $100 gets pooled by grade level or department. That’s a far cry from what’s recommended per student for materials and supplies under Tennessee’s formula for allocating money to districts, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP. The BEP recommends $74.25 per student for classroom supplies, which calculates to $1,485 for a classroom of 20.

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools, the district allocates $200 per teacher for basic education supplies. Each school receives another $100 per teacher for supplies — to be pooled and spent as the faculty and principal choose.

The BEP is a spending formula designed to calculate the cost of educating students; it doesn’t actually determine how districts spend their state funding. For cash-strapped school systems such as Shelby County Schools, money allotted for supplies often goes toward other necessities, leaving teachers to pick up the slack. Many say they spend anywhere from $400 to $1,000 of their own money every year on classroom needs.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joins school board members and teachers to unveil the district's new Teacher Tool Box.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (center) joins school board members and teachers to unveil the district’s new Teacher Tool Box.

Nationally, teachers spent $1.6 billion of their own money on school and instructional supplies in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the most recent survey on the subject by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, now called the Education Market Association.

The survey found that 99.5 percent of teachers reported spending in order to do their work. On average, teachers spent a total of $945 on classroom materials, with 10 percent spending more than $1,000 per year.

Nikki Wilks, an English teacher at Memphis Kingsbury High School, said she spent more than $1,000 on supplies during her first year of teaching, and more than $500 in each subsequent year.

“I never feel like I’m just spending money frivolously, because I’m told I can’t turn a student away if they don’t have paper and pencil,” Wilks said. “I want to do projects, but I work at a Title I school, and I can’t tell students that they have to buy a certain book for class. If I’m not buying it, where are my kids going to find it?”

How to help

Teachers are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing sites on social media to help stock their classrooms.

You can search by location at and lets you sort by schools of “highest poverty level,” or schools where more than 65 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

Parents and school alumni also can make gifts. Wilks said teachers at Kingsbury High posted their supply list on the school’s Facebook page and have been surprised by the response from alumni.

Reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to say that the United Education Association hosted a teacher survival store. A previous version incorrectly stated that the Tennessee Education Association ran the store. The United Education Association is an affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association.


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.