Young minds, big business: Public schools power the Valley’s bottom line
Editor's note: The average annual wage/benefit payment to each Douglas County PUD employee was underreported in the original version of this story. The error has been corrected in this version.
Teacher Evelyn Wood had $400 this year to buy supplies for her classroom and students. She spent every dime.
“It sounds like a lot of money,” said the second-grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary School in Quincy. “But, believe me, we have to be smart buyers, very frugal, to make those dollars stretch for the school supplies we need.”
Wood is just one of North Central Washington’s hundreds of teachers — along with thousands of parents and kids — who juiced the region’s summer economy by spending millions of dollars in August to ready themselves for the new school year. Back-to-school buying is second only to the December holidays in total retail sales, the National Retail Federation has noted.
Last month, Wood strolled the teacher-supply aisles of Academic Toolbox, the Wenatchee education store that draws customers from around the Pacific Northwest. She focused mostly on the basics — pencils, notebooks, an alphabet poster, a lesson planner — and will be reimbursed from school coffers.
“It’s all part of welcoming the students back to the classroom, setting a tone to make them comfortable but aware that we’ve got work to do,” she said.
Teacher purchases add up substantially no matter where they buy supplies, said Sharon Byers, co-owner of Academic Toolbox with her husband Dwight. Even as school budgets shrank during the recession — the Byerses saw educator purchases drop 60 percent in 2009 — many teachers have made up the difference from their own paychecks.
Byers estimated teachers spend an average of $30 per visit to Academic Toolbox during the crunch weeks before school starts. Some make multiple trips. They buy educational decor items (flags, planets, maps, numbers and ABCs), stickers, bookmarks, posters, pens, pencils and even award ribbons and “good behavior certificates” for everything from excellent attendance to quality homework to bravery in losing a tooth.
“Many of these items help offer positive reinforcement for good work and good actions,” said Byers. “It’s something teachers are very aware of — sometimes kids don’t get that reinforcement at home.”
Many of those shopping educators are from out of town, noted Byers, who served customers in August from Spokane, Montana and Idaho. “They’re taking a trip, maybe heading to Seattle, and heard this is a good place to shop,” smiled Byers. “Who would think that an educator’s store would be a kind of tourist destination?”
In South Wenatchee, the Goodwill store drew thousands of price-conscious parents in August as they readied their kids for the coming school year. “Many are spending over $100 a visit for clothes, shoes and school supplies,” said lead cashier Cinthia Covarrubias. “And $100 can buy a lot of great bargains here.”
For instance, packs of pencils are a quarter each and spiral notebooks are priced at four for 27 cents. Bins of backpacks, packages of socks, stacks of T-shirts and other popular back-to-school items line the aisles.
Goodwill staffers have also pulled from racks the best and most stylish teen clothing to display in hanging ensembles — tops for $3.99, dresses for $6.99, low-heeled sandals for $8 and jeans for $6.99 and up, depending on brand and condition.
“No question, this is one of our busiest times of the year,” said Covarrubias. “Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), the two weeks before Christmas and right now — the two weeks before school starts — are our biggest shopping periods of the year.”
Covarrubias said back-to-school sales help fund Goodwill programs that help train the store’s workers and find them jobs “out in the real world where they can contribute and make a real difference.”
Across the street at Wenatchee’s Staples, the huge office supply chain, the store was packed with parents and kids seeking bargains in school supplies just 12 days before school began.
“Wow,” said team supervisor Noah Fabian, “it’s been extremely hectic all week.” He laughed. “And especially hectic for the last four hours.”
Locally, Staples is known for its back-to-school generosity — for years sponsoring an annual school-supplies giveaway for hundreds of families. This year, the store joined with the North Central Educational Service District and other organizations to hold the event at the Wenatchee Community Center. On Aug. 10, they gave away 1,000 backpacks stuffed with supplies.
Staples also offers deep in-store specials on other supplies: 10-cent composition books (with coupon), for instance, and 99-cent portfolios in a myriad of colors and themes (puppies, sports, sunsets).
“We see teachers come in and buy for their entire class,” said Fabian. “Some of those teachers are reimbursed, but many are paying for supplies out of their own pockets. It feels good to be able to offer them such good discounts.”
Like other retailers, Staples sees the back-to-school season as one of its busiest times of year. “Freight shipments to the store double in the two weeks before school starts,” said Fabian.
He looked around at the aisles crowded with families buying school supplies. “We’ve even hired extra staff this year,” he said. “And we’re glad we did.”