In the past, Kelly McGee wouldn't have thought twice about buying $10, faux-leather journals for her students. But her husband lost his construction job this year. They have a new baby.
So McGee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, turned to Plan B. Last month, she put a plea for help in a virtual bottle and set it adrift in cyberspace, on a Web site called donorschoose.org.
And this week, two people answered, chipping in the $290 she needed.
"I was shocked," McGee said. "Both of the donors were from St. Petersburg, which is even more amazing. It feels like, 'Oh, I'm so happy to live in Pinellas County.' "
Spurred by deep cuts in education spending and a slumping economy, thousands of teachers in Florida and around the country are flocking to online charities like DonorsChoose and Adopt-A-Classroom, which allow donors to directly help individual classrooms.
This year, about 28,500 teachers registered with Miami-based Adopt-A-Classroom, up from 10,000 last year, said founder and executive director James Rosenberg.
At the same time, the number of donors is up, from about 3,000 to 6,500.
"Giving to education is the most inelastic of philanthropies," Rosenberg said. "It might be more difficult to support disaster relief in Indonesia. But when your child's teacher is asking for help, those are the last people you're probably going to say no to."
School districts around the country are laying off workers, closing schools and shuttering programs. Florida cut education spending for the first time in decades this year, and is expected to cut even deeper next year. Many districts, including Pinellas and Pasco, have frozen teacher salaries.
Florida gives teachers some money for supplies — about $250 each last year. But it's not enough to cover the average teacher's cost, which surveys have pegged at $500 to $1,200.
This year, the Legislature cut the supply money from $48-million to $37-million.
Besides the smaller stipend, many teachers face uncertainty about their own futures.
"I think they're saying, 'I'm really torn,' " said Judy McClellan, a former teacher who founded another teacher help site, Goldstar Registry. "A teacher may be saying, 'my husband may or may not have his job. I need to really think what I'm going to spend my money on.' "
Since its June launch, Goldstar has registered more than 6,000 teachers, including 317 in Florida. Eleven of them are at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo.
Teachers can use the Web sites to lay out their wish lists in detail.
At Sulphur Springs Elementary in Tampa, third-grade teacher Evelyn Carter-Price wants vouchers so her students can buy uniforms at Wal-Mart and books so they can practice reading at home.
"I'm trying to encourage my students to read every day, but it's very frustrating to know that they are lacking the basic items needed to achieve in their school environment," she writes on Adopt-A-Classroom.
At Gulf Highlands Elementary School in Port Richey, a "Ms. Z" wants a classroom printer/copier/scanner so her low-income students can use technology to create books.
"I feel that adding technology will make them feel like true authors," she writes on DonorsChoose. "You have no idea how amazing this small donation will make 20 kids feel!"
Since opening to Florida schools last year, DonorsChoose has raised $264,279 for 763 teachers, according to associate director Natalie French.
Nationally, the number of donors has more than doubled from last year, she said. But the average donation has dropped over that time from $150 to $87.
Many teacher help sites allow donors to search by district and school to pinpoint where they want to send money. Many also allow searches by a teacher's name.
Yet many teachers remain unfamiliar with the sites, as do many parents and other potential donors.
After hearing about school budget cuts last year, Christa Bauer, an employee with Bovis Lend Lease, an international general contractor with an office in Tampa, decided she wanted her company to help a local school.
"I didn't want just to shake my head and say that's terrible and not do anything," she said.
But not being familiar with any of the help sites, Bauer stumbled on iLoveSchools.com through Google. From there, she found a teacher at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg.
The company ended up buying everything from a printer to a Karaoke machine to electric pencil sharpeners for Toni Karpa's fifth-grade class. It also extended help to the school as a whole, buying eight picnic tables, restriping the playground and sprucing up the landscaping.
"It was overwhelmingly generous and awesome," Karpa said.
McGee, the North Shore Elementary teacher, said she wanted nicer notebooks because her class is working on project about tolerance and acceptance, and she wanted to inspire their writing. "I wanted to make it special," she said.
Her donors thought she made a good case.
"Kids need to understand, at an early age, the things that are important in life," wrote "Jeff" from St. Petersburg in a short note on DonorsChoose. "You are the future of the world, take advantage and make it a better place."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.