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September 23, 2014

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Education:

Back-to-school season has parents digging deep into their wallets

Retailers association puts average cost per family at $635 for new apparel, supplies

Back-to-School Shopping

Dianne Lommason, center, seen with daughter Kristyn, left, 11, takes three of her daughters back-to-school shopping at Target in Las Vegas on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

Here are three tips for back-to-school shopping season from UNLV marketing professor John Schibrowsky:

1. Wait until the school year starts to buy a new wardrobe for your children. Unlike other parts of the country, the start of school in Las Vegas doesn't coincide with the changing of the season, so students may return to school in their summer attire. Waiting a while to purchase new clothes will let children see what their friends are wearing and prevent you from buying things they won't wear because it's not in fashion that year.

2. Don't buy all your school supplies at one place. Compare different prices from different department stores to find the best deals. And don't forget you can purchase school supplies online.

3. Prioritize the back-to-school list. Although school supply prices are the lowest during back-to-school season, you don't have to purchase everything on the school list right away. Some school materials might not be used until the middle of the year.

Elementary School Shopping List

The Sun "shopped" at Target with Clark County School District's suggested list of school supplies for elementary school children. The supplies cost $77.53, before taxes.

- Backpack: $15.99

- Pink erasers: $1

- Two glue sticks: 50 cents

- One box of tissues: $1.44

- Box of crayons: 39 cents

- Wet wipes: $2.29

- Ziplock bags: $2.79

- No. 2 pencils: $3.99

- Fiskar scissors: 79 cents

- Two folders: 60 cents

- One roll of paper towels: $1.99

- Hand sanitizer: $1.72

- Pencil box: 69 cents

- Three spiral-bound notebooks: $1.50

- One red ballpoint pen: $2

- Colored pencils: 99 cents

- Red pencils: $1.99

- Dry erase markers: $2

- Hi-Liter: 88 cents

- Three-ring binder: $1

- Pens: $3.99

- Loose-leaf notebook paper: $1.50

- Dictionary: $14.94

- Ruler: $1.49

- Ream of printer paper: $3.14

- Lunch box: $7.54

Armed with a pink list of school supplies, Dianne Lommason paces around the back-to-school aisles with three of her daughters in tow.

With the start of school less than a week away, the 46-year-old Las Vegas mother of four has a lot of shopping to do. There are new clothes and shoes, new glasses for her middle-schooler and lots of school supplies, including a laptop for her oldest daughter, who starts this fall at UNLV.

“It’s a stressful time of year,” Lommason said, looking over her shopping list. “I’m feeling the pressure.”

As more than 312,000 Clark County children prepare to return to class on Monday with a sense of nervousness and excitement, their parents are feeling the pinch of back-to-school shopping.

For retailers, the back-to-school and college season represents the second-largest shopping event of the year after Black Friday, with total spending expected to reach $72.5 billion nationally. For families, back-to-school time is often one of the costliest seasons of the year.

This fall, the average American family with school-age children will spend about $635 on new apparel and supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. For families with multiple children like the Lommasons, the costs add up quickly.

This year, Lommason and her husband, who works in construction, estimate they will spend about $800 to $1,000.

“I dread it,” Lommason said. “I try to put it off.”

•••

In the wake of the worst recession in a half century, school districts across the country have tightened their purse strings, affecting everything from school maintenance to classroom budgets.

Two years ago, the Clark County School District slashed funding for instructional supplies by half, forcing teachers and parents to make up the difference.

Teachers nationally spend about $400 on school supplies and $540 on instructional materials out of their own pockets each year, according to a 2010 survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association.

Consequently, parents are being asked to cough up money to help teachers cover the cost of school supplies that were once funded by their districts.

Many Clark County schools ask families to chip in tissues, paper towels, baby wipes and copy paper to be used by the entire classroom. Some schools charge technology fees to maintain computers. Some teachers are asking families to write checks to cover communal supplies.

“We’re having to pick up paying for school supplies,” Lommason said. “A lot of this is because we don’t fund our schools properly.”

Lommason would know. The Las Vegas High School graduate, class of 1985, remembers a time when there were no required back-to-school shopping lists.

“I remember when everything was provided. Paper, pencils, they had everything,” Lommason said. “You just showed up.”

•••

It’s Monday — a week before school starts — and Lommason is at a Henderson-area Target after dropping about $90 on school supplies the previous week.

Lommason’s youngest daughter, Camryn — an incoming fourth-grader at Cartwright Elementary School — needs a new backpack and lunchbox.

The family’s first stop is aisle F41, a row of colorful lunchboxes and plastic water bottles.

Camryn, 9, picks up a pink Barbie-branded Thermos bottle, holds it up toward her mother and exclaims, “Ooh, I like this one!”

“No, not going to happen,” Lommason replies, shaking her head. “It’s $15.”

Saying no to her children is sometimes tough for Lommason. Growing up with a single mother, Lommason didn’t have everything her friends had, she said.

“I like to get them things,” Lommason said. “They’re good kids. But there are limits.”

Whenever she goes shopping, Lommason must balance her children’s desire for the latest fashion with a strained family budget.

Lommason said she occasionally splurges on her children, purchasing brand-name apparel like Tilly’s and Fox at trendy stores.

“I don’t want them to get made fun of,” Lommason said. “Kids can be mean at their age.”

•••

For years, the level of back-to-school spending in Las Vegas has fallen below the national average, said UNLV business professor John Schibrowsky.

Minority families, which represent the majority of Clark County students, tend to spend less on back-to-school shopping, although that is changing, Schibrowsky said.

The lingering effects of the recession also have hurt the market, he said.

“Our economy was hit the hardest in the recession,” Schibrowsky said. “Families just can’t afford to spend as much on back-to-school shopping.”

For retailers, school supplies are often a loss leader, which means they're at rock-bottom prices to entice shoppers into stores -- who then perhaps purchase other products.

However, the back-to-school shopping season is important for the local economy, Schibrowsky said. A good back-to-school shopping season can help department stores weather a bad holiday season.

And with signs of an economic comeback in Las Vegas, Schibrowsky said he is hopeful local retailers and school children can reap its benefits.

“When you have better economic times, you tend to spend a little more on your kids,” he said.

•••

Back at the store, the Lommason family is looking at backpacks near aisle D10.

“You like that one?” Lommason asks Camryn.

Camryn scans the row of backpacks and runs to one, pointing at it.

“$45? Um, no. Not going to happen,” Lommason said, picking a navy blue backpack. “How much is this one? I like this one better because it has metal zippers.”

Lommason balances quality and cost whenever she shops.

Will the more expensive backpack hold up longer, saving money in the long run? But with all the other expenses piling up, is getting the cheaper backpack a better option right now?

The mother picks the cheaper $25 backpack, hoping it’ll last the school year.

“I think we’re done here,” she said, and they head toward the checkout counter.

Passing a bin of crayons, she tosses two boxes into her cart.

“I always run out of these midyear,” she said, chuckling. “We’ll probably run out of paper and glue, too. I feel like they eat it.”

On her way to checkout, the stay-at-home mother does some mental math, scanning her shopping cart. There's a backpack, two lunchboxes, two crayon boxes and some mechanical pencils.

“Not too bad today,” Lommason said. “Probably $60? Maybe more.”

The receipt reads $53.49. Close guess.

•••

Although the bulk of her school shopping is done, Lommason isn’t breathing easy yet.

When class starts, there will be a slew of other costs.

Lommason’s oldest daughter, Taylor, still needs a laptop for college. Lommason is hoping to spend about $400 tops on a basic computer.

Her second daughter, Jordan, 16, will need about $200 to play soccer for Silverado High School. Jordan also plans to go to junior prom, which comes with its own cost.

Lommason’s third daughter, Kristyn, 11, needs new glasses. The Silvestri Middle School seventh-grader has been wearing the same glasses since the third grade and is due for an update.

And then there are the little costs that keep adding up. Class pictures and caps and gowns during senior year. Yearbooks for all school levels. Five dollars to use a gym locker at Silverado. Ten dollars for a mandatory agenda planner at Silvestri. School workbooks and poster boards for projects throughout the year.

“It’s frustrating because I feel like I can’t get a break at all,” Lommason said. “It’s like slam, slam, slam.”

Lommason said she’s not looking for a handout from the government but believes the state should put more funding into it schools — covering at least the basic supplies.

“It’s hard when our community doesn’t put a lot in education,” Lommason said. “It’s hard to tell your kids why education is important when our schools are missing paper and pencils.

“Education benefits everyone. The more we put into our youth, the better. They’re our future.”

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