A 2011 back-to-school quiz:
According to the National Retail Foundation, families with children in grades K-12 will spend more than $600 on apparel and school supplies this year. But facing tighter budgets or worse--unemployment--what are parents to do?
A. shop smarter
B. shop less
C. ask for help
D. all of the above
The answer requires some economics and a bit of sociology. While Idaho's school districts consider budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, families face a more basic challenge: whether to buy a new pair of sneakers or backpack, or simply do without for another year.
Many of those families were among the more than 5,000 people who walked through the doors of the Garden City Walmart on Aug. 13.
"We see a steady stream the two weeks before the start of school," said Lori Speakman, store manager. "We actually have the lists from all the school districts, with the details of all the required supplies. The parents grab the lists as soon as they walk in."
Surrounded by Hello Kitty backpacks, Transformers folders and Selena Gomez notebooks, Stacey Wright and her 9-year-old daughter Elle studied an elementary school supply list, while toddler Rafe looked on, comfortably perched in the seat of a shopping cart.
"We're taking care of the basics," said Wright, already filling the cart with red pens, paper and colorful folders.
"I picked out the folders with puppies on the cover," said Elle, who will be walking into Mrs. Wilson's fourth-grade class at Shadow Hills Elementary on Wednesday Aug. 24. "I'm excited."
One aisle over, Boise State sophomore nursing student Chelsey Snider grabbed an armful of spiral notebooks.
"I need a lot of these, plus a binder and some folders," said Snider. "I'm on a budget, about $30."
A 20-cent spiral notebook or 97-cent folder are on the low-end of most shopping lists. But add Crayolas, glue sticks, Sharpies, jump drives, hand sanitizer, a backpack and a new pair of sneakers and you're talking serious money. Calculators, in particular, add quite a bit to the total.
"These are definitely not the calculators that you would have seen 10 years ago," said Speakman. "Some of these are for physics and engineering." She pointed to a stack of calculators, priced $100 or more.
Less than a mile away from Walmart, two of the pricey calculators sat on a near-empty table in a back room of the Salvation Army's Boise office.
"These are so expensive," said Amber Young of the Salvation Army, pointing to the calculators. "We have to wait for a specific request before we give one of these out."
Young, the Salvation Army's social services coordinator, was coordinating an annual distribution of school supplies to the region's underprivileged, whose numbers continue to swell in the shadow of a failing economy.
"A number of these people have never been through our front door before," she said.
The tiny Salvation Army State Street lobby was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with parents and anxious children. The clamor for supplies was so intense, a volunteer had to command everyone's attention with a shrill whistle.
"Please, people, please," a volunteer shouted. "We need you to keep it down, so we can try to help everyone."
"We're anticipating at least 900 people will ask us for school supplies," said Young. When asked how many families they hope to support, Young took a long breath. "I think we have enough for about 500. A lot of people showed up so early because they knew we could run out."
Pat St. Tourangeau has seen too many students show up on the first day of school without supplies, and said this year will be no exception--maybe a little worse. In 27 years as an educator, she said, she always tries to have some extra supplies on hand. St. Tourangeau taught for 20 years in the northern Idaho town of Kamiah before moving to Boise with her husband Warren (a teacher at Centennial High School) and son Mark. On Sept. 24 she'll begin her fifth year as the Boise High School librarian.
"We have a large number of E.L.L. students here. That's our English Language Learners," said St. Tourangeau, referring to the school's growing refugee population. "When I shop for my son, I usually pick up a couple extra notebooks for the E.L.L. students."
St. Tourangeau said there was a time when Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna distributed so-called "purchase" cards to teachers to help supplement supplies.
"I think that's how he won some loyalty from teachers," she said. "But that's gone now."
In fact, scaled back state education budgets have had a dramatic impact on St. Tourangeau: There is zero budget for the library.
"This will be the second year without any new library books," said St. Tourangeau.
As a result, St. Tourangeau's out-of-pocket expenses are constant. She regularly visits the Assistance League of Boise's Thrift Shop.
"I pick up books all the time," she said. A slightly used paperback costs about $1.50 while a hard cover book could run $3-$4.
"I'm always looking for books that our students use a lot and fall apart," she said. "I stopped by the Assistance League a couple of weeks ago and bought some books for $25. I'm not going to get reimbursed for that."
St. Tourangeau said all of her colleagues make the same sacrifice.
"So many of the kids don't have the basics, like pens and notebooks," she said.
And if a stranger were to put $100 in her hands tomorrow, she said she would head straight for Rediscovered Books to buy some more titles for the school library.[ Video is no longer available. ]