Costs of back-to-school shopping keeps rising for families

The smell of freshly sharpened pencils and waxy crayons is in the air. It’s a sure sign of oncoming fall as parents scramble to fulfill long lists of school supplies for their children.

“August is our Christmas,” says Paul Tollefson, sales associate at Office Max, where the center aisle is packed with an array of school basics and not-so-basics.

And just like the shopping-heavy holiday season, back-to-school is a time when parents spend big on their kids, clutching school-supply lists like letters to Santa as they shop for the upcoming school year.

The average family with school-aged kids will spend $563.49 on back-to-school shopping this year, up 6.9 percent from last year’s average, according to a National Retail Federation survey. For school supplies alone, families will spend an average of $94.02, up about $8 from last year.

Liza Arriaga is right on target so far. As a senior at Western Washington University and a mother of two, Arriaga, 34, estimates she has spent at least $500 throughout the summer picking up items for school, including clothing and supplies.

“I’m lucky I have only two (kids),” she says of daughter Kristian, 8, going into third grade at Sunnyland Elementary School, and son Alex, 11, going into sixth grade at Whatcom Middle School. “But it does become a hardship between clothes and supplies.”

Arriaga, who also works part time at Kids’ World preschool on D Street, moved from Texas to Bellingham two years ago and has been surprised to see the long lists of supplies requested by her children’s schools.“I just think the school list has gotten a little complicated,” she says. “(In Texas) they were a little more basic than the ones around here.”

It’s a complaint Tollefson says is common among parents shopping for supplies at Office Max.“I hear the same thing,” he says. “I talked to a few (parents) and they say, ‘When I was in school, I didn’t even have these.’”

The supply lists for Sunnyland include at least 11 items for each grade. Arriaga was particularly surprised by items such as overhead pens, which are usually supplied by the school.

Supplies can vary from simple to elaborate depending on the school and grade, and the more items on those lists, the harder it is for parents who don’t want their kids to show up on the first day of class unprepared.

“I know each teacher is individualistic,” Arriaga says of the varying lists. “But you have some parents who really can’t make that list, and you really don’t want your kids to feel left out.”

Parents who have difficulty paying for supplies can find help at local nonprofit Blue Skies for Children. Office manager Jessie Burton says she often hears parents complain about the growing lists, wondering why items are no longer supplied by schools. Burton understands the parents’ plight, but she has also talked to teachers who say they’re in a bind.

“They don’t like it either,” she says. “It’s just budget, and they can’t afford to pay for it.”

Along with the more common pens, pencils and paper, some school lists requested: clean, old socks for the whiteboard; 20 pennies, five nickels, 10 dimes and four quarters in a Ziploc bag; and packages of stickers. One school requested that kindergarten boys bring a can of shaving cream and that girls bring a bag of cotton balls.Here’s a sampling of some local supply lists:

• items for class use include cups, plates, Ziploc bags, batteries and snacks such as crackers.

• health items include hand sanitizer, moist towelettes and tissues.

• instructional tools include dry-erase markers and erasers, red pens and money for classroom projects.

Former Custer Elementary School principal Susan Holmes says supply lists didn’t grow substantially in the nine years she worked at the school.

“Sometimes items are added, but sometimes items are deleted as well,” she said in an e-mail.

The school offers supplies at reduced cost in its student store and also offers assistance to families who cannot afford to purchase the supplies.

“We want all our children to have the same opportunity to be ready for school and ready to learn,” she says. “Every child deserves that.”

Arriaga has managed to save money on school supplies by buying in bulk when items she knows she and the kids will need go on sale.

“You just have to stock up,” she says. “I don’t mind paying it because your kids are going to get use out of it.”Since many of the supplies on the list will be pooled together for classroom use, some schools advise against expensive or fancy supplies.

“My 11-year-old doesn’t care; he’s a boy,” Arriaga says of the pooled basics. “Dealing with a girl is another monster. She wants all the cutesy stuff. It makes it hard to explain to her that she can’t have that little unicorn folder that shimmers when you move it.”