As the calendar wends toward August, students and parents know what's just around the corner: the start of another school year.
And in Hernando County, that means it's time for the United Way's annual Stuff the Bus campaign.
In its sixth year, the program — which runs Friday through July 29 — seeks to load up 11 school buses with donations of school supplies such as pencils, pens, paper, markers and glue. The supplies then are donated to classroom teachers.
The buses will be parked at several locations across the county, staffed by grateful teachers who otherwise might have to dig into their personal coffers to ensure that no student goes without supplies and learning materials.
Small purchases by large numbers of donors can make a big difference, organizers of the drive say, and the demand is great.
"This year," United Way of Hernando County executive director Kathy Jones said, "252 teachers have requested items, the most we've ever had."
The first Stuff the Bus campaign filled requests from just 90 teachers, she noted.
A lot of teachers are asking for paper, Jones said, with wish list submissions by teachers at 24 public and private schools, as well as some parents of home-schoolers.
"Composition books are a big need," she said, "(and) dry erase markers. They're asking for pencils, of course, and just regular notebook paper."
Facial tissues, erasers, crayons and colored pencils, highlighters, pencil sharpeners, folders, sticky tape, scissors, stickers, printer ink cartridges, even soap and perhaps some bulletin board decor also are being sought.
"The average out-of-pocket (purchases by teachers themselves) is $400 to $500," Jones said. "That's what statistics show."
Rick Ahrens, the vocational agriculture instructor at Hernando High School and a veteran of more than 20 years in the classroom, said the amount is likely higher in many cases — "probably $500 to $1,000. That would not surprise me."
The alternative is not acceptable, Ahrens said.
"What do I do? Tell the kids no?"
The school district allots $24 for supplies for each student, the money parceled out to teachers by principals, said the district's chief financial officer, Desiree Henegar. The teacher can buy supplies from the district's warehouse of materials or from outlets of the teacher's choosing.
The district allocation this year will be the same as last year, Henegar said, but substantially below the $37 from several years ago, before budget slashing by the state Education Department.
Teachers themselves have been making up the shortfall, more so since the economy has struck the wallets of parents, who previously purchased supplies for their children, Ahrens said.
More and more, Jones said, teachers are relying on Stuff the Bus contributions.
"They really depend on it," she said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]