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Teachers Lose Tax Breaks for Class Supplies

With spending slashed at schools, educators say it's a bad time to cut state and federal reimbursements.

August 15, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | 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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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