News Story

Michigan Law Clear: Taxpayers, Not Teachers, Buy Classroom Supplies

Union spin notwithstanding, districts give teachers purchase cards or other compensation

A blog article posted by the union-funded Economic Policy Institute in August carried the title “It’s the beginning of the school year and teachers are once again opening up their wallets to buy school supplies.”

The article cited a federally funded survey of teachers that reported the average Michigan teacher spends $628 a year on school supplies and is not reimbursed for that expense. Only teachers in California claimed to have spent more ($664).

This report is not consistent with what Michigan school districts report about their practices in this area.

School districts across the state are giving school employees pre-paid “purchase cards” to buy classroom supplies, despite claims from unions and others that these expenses are coming out teachers’ own pockets.

State law is clear on this point. The Michigan Supreme Court and the Michigan Department of Education have both affirmed that the state constitution mandates that school districts, not school employees, are responsible for providing materials deemed essential for teaching.

The Michigan Department of Education lists specific examples of what is considered “essential,” including pencils, paper, crayons, scissors, glue sticks and text books.

The Midland Public School District distributed around 560 pre-paid purchase cards to its 868 full-time employees.

The district reported online that one of the cards had a purchase limit of $300,000, but Superintendent Michael Sharrow told Michigan Capitol Confidential that this is not accurate. He said the district uses the cards in place of purchase orders for any vendor who will accept them. This system, he added, allows the district to earn rebates on some purchases.

Other recipients of the Midland district cards are teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators, whose cards vary in value.

For example, 29 employees at one Midland middle school were given cards, including one with a $1,500 purchase limit for a first-grade teacher, a $4,240 card for the president of the district’s Parent-Teacher Organization — who is also a consultant to the district — and a $25,000 card for the principal.

Sharrow said the district has a policy for how the cards may be used, but that this depends on the specific request.

Sharrow said all requests to purchase supplies are reviewed and if approved, the money is placed on the card.

He said the school district has budgeted a set amount for supplies for classrooms, and principals decide how much may be spent by their schools’ employees.

For example, the superintendent said that an art teacher would have a different spending cap than a physical education teacher, with the amounts for each determined on a case-by-case basis.

“We are very fiscally conservative so we do not approve without a rationale,” Sharrow said.

The cards are used to avoid the district having to reimburse employees for classroom supply purchases.

A teacher from another district said on a social media outlet that teachers pay for a variety of things on their own: whiteboard markers, construction paper, rulers, markers, calculators, Kleenex, disinfectants, colored pencils, chart paper, colored printer paper, folders, binders, thumb drives and white boards.

However, Sharrow said that at Midland schools, the district itself pays for all those items.

“But, if [teachers] use them and need more above the total budget allotted, most likely they purchase out of their own pocket,” Sharrow said in an email. “Do teachers purchase supplies well above the budgeted amount out of their own pocket? Yes, for sure. Nearly all of us do.”