Pens, pencils, erasers, glue sticks. These school supplies can fit in your pocket, but the cost for them and other classroom essentials can add up. 

In a new move this year to make back-to-school easier on families, Auburn School District leveraged its purchasing power to buy notebooks, pencil boxes and crayons by the truckload to provide necessities for nearly 17,000 students.

Like most other school districts, Auburn used to publish school-supplies lists by grade level on its website. Families could either shop on their own or click on vendor links to purchase the required items. A typical basket of supplies for elementary school kids — containing folders, markers, crayons, scissors, glue sticks and pencil boxes, among other items — could cost a family between $80 and $100.

“With our buying power, we were able to get that down to $25,” said district purchasing coordinator Bruce Merritt. The total cost to the district came to around $650,000 for the school year, meaning parents don’t have to spend any money at all to equip their kids with supplies during this inflation-fueled time.

School supplies account for only a fraction of families’ back-to-school spending. A Deloitte research study estimated that U.S. households will spend an average of $661 per child on things like supplies, clothing and technology. National Retail Federation has been reporting Consumer Price Index highs of over 9%, with few signs that families are pulling back on spending for school and college. The firm estimates that households will spend an average of $864 on school items, up from $697 in 2019. 

While it’s too early to say for certain, this effort may also provide relief for educators in the district. Nationally, teachers report spending hundreds of dollars a year from their own paychecks for everything from hand sanitizer to books for their students.

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For the Auburn district, making bulk purchases — like 90,000 glue sticks and 18,000 pencil boxes — take planning, budgeting and negotiating. 

Equity in action

Merritt, who has been with Auburn schools for about a year and a half, had a pilot run while working for Franklin Pierce Schools in Tacoma, where he bought, sorted and distributed huge quantities of school staples. “There was a need to fill from an equity lens,” he said. That district was about half the size of Auburn, but Merritt said it was a good dry run in logistics.

Planning for the district-wide school supplies project in Auburn began last October and subsequently shielded the district from current inflation rates, Merritt said. Cindi Blansfield, the district’s associate superintendent of business and operations, heard that the Auburn Public Schools Foundation, which typically helps the district pay for things like field trips and classroom enrichment projects, was getting requests for small items like notebooks and pencils. 

Had they waited to initiate this effort even in early 2022, Merritt said, they may not have received their orders until later in the fall. They may have also had to pay more. In the current market, for example, the cost of paper is increasing every three months or so, he said. 

With an estimated 63% of the district’s students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Auburn administrators were already working to ensure all kids would be able to access meals at no cost to families in years to come. This spurred Merritt to suggest providing school supplies, too. 

“Much like the meals [fulfilling] basic needs for thinking and learning and problem-solving, the supplies are basic needs for teaching and learning,” Blansfield said. 

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But, Merritt said, “We’re in a wild world of supply chain logistics. So we wanted to make sure we did our research early on.”

He said that he, along with the foundation and the district’s administration, will continue to watch the markets as they plan how to sustain this initiative for future school years.

This year, according to the district’s website, Franklin Pierce Schools are still covering school supplies for kids, but only in pre-kindergarten through Grade 8.

In Auburn, once Merritt found the best suppliers offering the right prices, he said there was a lot to consider about shipping, storing and distributing the materials for 16 elementary schools. 

Each school in the Auburn district is responsible for getting the supplies to students. Many of the elementary schools opted to hand them out during the first day of classes. At Auburn High School, the kits were distributed last week during Trojan Day, a back-to-school event. 

Incoming junior Emily Helms, a youth leadership and community service program coordinator, was among several students handing out clear plastic bags of supplies to students as they arrived. Each high school kit contained a large, three-ring binder, eight spiral-bound and two composition notebooks, two 12-packs of yellow pencils, a pack of highlighters, two packs of black ink pens and a set of earbuds. 

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“I like that this is for everyone. I think it relieves a lot of stress,” Helms said. 

Incoming freshman Joel Acosta and his mother, Ana, said they were relieved to receive the supplies and meet some friendly members of the school community along the way. 

“I’m feeling pretty nervous,” Joel said in thinking about his first day of high school. “My goals are passing classes and trying to get a good first impression with my teachers.” 

“This is a good thing,” Ana, Joel’s mother, said of the school supplies initiative. “Right now, everything is so expensive. I just want to say thank you very much to the school.”