Hernando County's high unemployment makes back-to-school shopping a struggle

BROOKSVILLE

Buying school supplies for her 4-year-old daughter is on Sandra Hibbert's "to do" list.

So is finding a job.

Hibbert, a 24-year-old unemployed certified nursing assistant and a single mother of two, left her job nearly a year ago because of a back injury. The Spring Hill resident did some temporary work during tax season and has now been looking for a full-time position for about four months.

At this point, she said, she'll take anything.

"I'm trying to pinch pennies so I can actually do school supplies," Hibbert said last week as she scanned job offerings at Career Central in Spring Hill. Her daughter, Taylor, who is heading to kindergarten at Explorer K-8 this year, wriggled in a chair nearby.

Many families always find it difficult come August to put out the cash for binders and blue jeans. This year it will be especially tough. In an economy that for many has been a textbook lesson in financial pain, restocking closets with school clothes and tackling page-long school supply lists can be daunting for parents living paycheck to paycheck — and for parents without paychecks at all.

Unemployment in Hernando County hit 13.1 percent in June, and families are being uprooted by foreclosure.

Shoppers won't get relief from a back-to-school sales tax holiday this year. Florida lawmakers, worried about the state's own budget crisis, decided against it, just like last year.

Teachers say they expect students to come less prepared on the first day as parents try to cut corners.

"It's so much worse than people realize," said Brad Stevenson, a math teacher at Moton Elementary School in Brooksville. "When they get to school, they're going to be short things."

• • •

Holly Bliss bustles through the doors of Office Depot, two of her daughters in tow.

All four of the Brooksville mother's children are heading back to school Aug. 24. Her husband, Zane, a custodian for the school district, recently switched jobs and is making less money. Holly, herself a student at the University of South Florida, had to take a part-time job.

"It's been really tight," Bliss said as she stood a few paces away from a clearance cart.

Bliss and other parents interviewed last week said they will rely on sales more than ever this year, and analysts predict another back-to-school shopping season marked by frugality.

More than six in 10 respondents to a survey by the consulting firm Deloitte last month said they plan to spend less for back-to-school items. That is an improvement, at least, over last year's seven in 10.

General concerns about the economy topped the reasons that consumers expect to spend less. More than one in five of the 1,044 respondents cited a job loss in their household, and 17 percent expressed fears of job loss.

Anthony and April Pavone of Spring Hill know all about that.

A former teacher, Anthony has been out of work for more than a year and is now applying for $8-an-hour jobs at Publix and Wal-Mart. The couple have two children, but are separated and living with their respective mothers.

They were in Career Central together on Friday — their fifth anniversary — Anthony looking for jobs, April applying for government help.

Their daughter, 6-year-old Angel, is heading to Pine Grove Elementary this year. April's sister helped with school supplies, but the rest of the family is strapped and unable to do more, she said.

As for school clothes, "I don't know what I'm going to do for her," April said, wiping tears.

"You feel like you're underwater and you're trying to break free," she said. "You're holding your breath and you're trying to get to the surface."

• • •

As his grandson tried on a knit polo shirt at ABC School Uniforms west of Brooksville last week, Lynn Lindsay offered his motto for back-to-school shopping this year.

"Do more with less," Lindsay said. "That's the way of the new economy."

Lindsay and his wife, Yong, of Land O'Lakes, are once again helping their daughter, a single mother, prepare her two children for school by footing the bill for uniforms and supplies.

The Lindsays are using what is clearly a common strategy this year: to buy fewer items during the first trip and then return later, said ABC owner Debbie Foster.

"The economy is smacking everyone," Foster said. "They're getting two or three (uniforms) to start off the year and planning on coming back for more when they have more money."

Many are opting not to buy pants and jackets now, figuring they can wait until the chilly weather comes later in the fall, she said.

Another sign of lean times: Parents are skipping the $7 option to add a school logo to the knit polo uniform shirts.

"It's just a luxury that people are letting slide," Foster said.

Hernando schools that require uniforms offer exchange programs to allow families to bring in clothes their child has outgrown and trade up for a larger size.

At Pine Grove, the uniform closet, called the Cubby Hole, is open all year. It was a busier place last year after the economy tanked, principal Earl Deen said.

"It was more active, definitely," Deen said.

He said he expects more of the same this year.

• • •

Deen is among some school administrators who asked teachers to keep the recession in mind as they created school supply lists this year.

"We trimmed ours way down," Deen said.

Gone from the required list are items such as markers, facial tissues and baby wipes, Deen said.

That may put more of the burden on teachers to make up the difference, however.

Hernando teachers receive a stipend of state money in September; last year it was about $200, and it will likely be closer to $180 this year due to cuts by the state, according to the district's finance department. Teachers also receive some cash from their school, with the amounts varying by school. But teachers typically spend their own money to ready their rooms for the first day.

"I think this year everybody's pulling back on that quite a bit because they don't have money themselves," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

Stevenson, the Moton teacher, said he has already spent about $200 of his own money. He said he does so gladly, though.

"If teachers are teaching, it means they have a job," he said. "Many parents are without."

• • •

Events targeted to the neediest families are expected to be swamped this year, organizers say.

JoAnn Munford of Brooksville is heading up one of two Operation Backpack efforts.

Munford's event to hand out backpacks and school supplies for struggling parents was slated for this weekend, and she said earlier in the week that her phone had hardly stopped ringing.

"I'm getting 25 to 30 calls a day," she said. "It's just the need out there."

For more families, back-to-school preparations include signing up for help from the government to ensure their children get one or two square meals during the school day.

About 52 percent of Hernando's schoolchildren are enrolled in the free and reduced-price meal program, which offers lunch and breakfast at low or no cost to students whose families meet income requirements, said Lori Drenth, the district's director of food and nutrition services. That's up from 42 percent when Drenth started in Hernando about five years ago — and the bulk of the increase came in the last two years, she said.

"I expect that we'll have considerably more this year," Drenth said.

For many students, all this might serve as a lesson in lowered expectations.

Teasia Newkirk, a 13-year-old from Spring Hill who attends Explorer, seemed to have that down.

"I have three brothers," Teasia said. "I can't get everything I want, but (Mom) tries."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

fast facts

To get help

• School supply giveaway from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as part of the One Man Rally, Saturday , Kennedy Park, 899 Kennedy Blvd., Brooksville. For information, call (352) 796-5555.

• "The Great Exchange" back-to-school giveaway, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Springs of Life Family Church, 19832 County Line Road, just west of the Suncoast Parkway. The event will include games, and also clothing, backpacks, school supplies and haircuts will be provided free. Those attending are asked to bring clean clothing in good condition for the exchange. Admission per family is either a $5 donation or five cans of food. Call (352) 238-8690.

• Operation Backpack, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 15, Jerome Brown Center, 99 Jerome Brown Place, Brooksville. Free backpacks and school supplies offered by the city of Brooksville and Friends of the Children. Call (352) 544-5400.

To give help

The United Way will collect school supplies and gift cards for Hernando teachers and their students for its Stuff the Bus campaign from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug 14-16 at the following locations:

• Staples, 4210 Commerical Way, Spring Hill

• Publix at Seven Hills, 160 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill

• Publix at Mariner Commons, 4158 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill

• Publix at Barclay, 14371 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill

• Publix at Glen Lakes, 9595 Commercial Way, Spring Hill

• All three Wal-Mart Supercenters.

For information, call (352) 688-2026.

Hernando County's high unemployment makes back-to-school shopping a struggle 08/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 11:14pm]

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