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Teachers Lose Tax Breaks for Class Supplies

Times Staff Writer

Ka-ching. A packet of sparkling sea life stickers for $1.99. Ka-ching. A stack of happy birthday certificates for $2.99. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Forty metallic pencils for $10.40, and a spelling workbook for $16.99.

By the time Jennifer Gile, a teacher in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, checked out of the Teacher Supplies of Long Beach store, she had charged $78.67. This was on top of nearly $200 she spent in the last few days buying other supplies.

“I’m trying not to go overboard,” she told the cashier.

With the loss of state and federal tax breaks designed to repay the many teachers who buy their own classroom supplies, Gile and other educators across California say they have good reason to be more frugal.

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Gile, who earns a little more than $48,000 a year, spends at least $2,000 of that on school supplies each year. She was counting on the state Teacher Retention Tax Credit, which repays teachers up to $1,500 in taxes, to cover some of those out-of-pocket expenses. But it was suspended last month under the state budget plan, for a savings of $400 million over two years.

Making money matters worse, a federal tax deduction for up to $250 for teachers’ extra expenses expired this year.

Educators say it’s a bad time to halt such tax breaks because school districts across the country have chopped spending for basic supplies like copier paper and tissues.

“It is a miracle what our teachers are doing every day,” said California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr. “They spend thousands of dollars in their classrooms.” The tax benefits’ end, she said, represents “a tax increase for teachers, people who don’t deserve a tax increase.”

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Some teachers are rationing their money as the start of the school year approaches.

Science teacher Martine Korach, of Robert A. Millikan High School in the Long Beach Unified School District, started shopping in increments. So far, she has bought a mop, a bucket, Lysol, ink remover and gum cleaner. Since the district cut down on janitors with budget cuts, she said, she does most of her classroom cleaning.

For projects that make class fun for students, she will need to pick up: Ziploc bags, baking soda, vinegar, ammonia, a variety of soaps, and cheese to test for chemicals. Although the school provides some of these materials, Korach said, they run out fast, with 20 science teachers on campus.

In years past, Korach spent hundreds of dollars buying rock, mica, sulfur and quartz mineral samples. Once, she purchased 10 stopwatches at $14 each because the ones the school provided broke. She also spends about $40 a month to feed and take care of the classroom pets: a leopard gecko, a corn snake, a rabbit and some slimy mice.

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It all adds up to about $3,000 a year, she estimates.

Korach, a teacher for more than 10 years, earns about $55,000 a year. She got state and federal tax breaks in the past, and will feel the pinch this year.

“The general public doesn’t really understand how much we spend out of our own pockets just to be able to do our jobs,” she said. “But we all do it because it’s the best for the kids, and that’s why we are here.”

Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou said some items had been scaled back because “budgets are tight, and many of our teachers reach into their own pockets.”

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The California Teacher Retention Tax Credit was first offered in 2000. It was aimed at encouraging teachers to remain in the classrooms by repaying them a portion of personal money spent on supplies. Teachers with four to 11 years of experience could receive $250 to $500. Those with 11 to 20 or more years could receive $1,000 and $1,500.

It was suspended in 2002, when state lawmakers were grappling with a budget gap, and then revived the next year. During the 2003-04 tax year, the state spent $180 million on it. Last month, the legislators agreed to suspend it once again, until 2007.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said that it was a difficult decision for the governor and the Legislature to suspend the tax credit, but they agreed it was necessary.

The National Education Assn. and some lawmakers are trying to resurrect the federal teacher tax deduction for supplies, which was first offered in 2002 but expired last year. The NEA is asking teachers to save their receipts in hopes that Congress will approve the proposed Teacher Tax Relief Act, which would make the expense deduction permanent and increase the maximum deduction to $400 or $500.

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The Los Angeles teachers union has teamed up with a local Latino radio station, KSCA-FM, to raise money for teachers’ supply wish lists this school year. It’s frustrating to read teachers’ letters, said Angelica Urquijo, a spokeswoman for the union, because many of their requests are so basic.

For example, a Canoga Park Elementary teacher asked for paper, pencils, crayons, construction paper and paper towels.

A Micheltorena Street School teacher asked for scissors, highlighters, glue sticks and white-board erasers.

Mark Shrager, deputy budget director for L.A. Unified, said the district reduced funding by $50 per student during the 2003-04 school year, which may have caused some schools to cut back on supplies.

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A survey conducted by the local union, United Teachers Los Angeles, showed that its members spent an average of $1,047 of their own money on school supplies last year. Across the country, the National School Supply and Equipment Assn. found that teachers spent an average of $458.

On a recent day, Gile of Redondo Beach Unified sat cross-legged on the floor of the Long Beach store, sifting through workbooks.

She said she buys pencil pouches each year for her students from poor families so they have the same little treasures as students from wealthier families. She also gives her students name tags and stickers that read “Hooray!” or “Wow!” for good behavior. She buys activities and learning guides for special education students who lag her regular students academically.

Gile is afraid students will suffer from the cuts to education and suspension of the state tax credit because teachers like her may not be able to afford as many supplies.

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This is the time of year when Teacher Supplies of Long Beach is filled with shoppers stuffing baskets with glittery stickers, fake dollar bills and fraction games shaped like pepperoni pizzas. But Dorothy Cohen, the owner for 32 years, said business is down this summer.

She blamed the tax changes and cutbacks in the decrease of schools’ purchase orders.

At her shop, Steve Israel, a special education teacher at Huntington Park High School, browsed workbooks with themes such as chocolate and sports. Israel, a sixth-year teacher, spends at least $1,500 a year on materials and was hoping to get a tax break this year. Even an extra $250, he said, “would go a long way.”

It’s hardest for young teachers, said Michael Day, a veteran teacher in Long Beach. Most of them are still paying college loans and are at the bottom of the pay scale, he said, yet they are expected to beautify their classrooms mostly on their own. He added that many new teachers are placed in schools with many students from low-income families. “Some kids have a tough time bringing a pencil to school,” he said.

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Day, a teacher at Eugene Tincher K-8 School, received $1,000 in state tax credit last year.

“Over the past few years, pay raises have been virtually nonexistent. We’ve been fighting to keep health benefits,” he said. “This is just another thing that cuts into their salaries.”


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