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Ready or not, school's here // SHOP TILL YOU DROP

(ran PAS edition)

JoAnn Leone and her daughter, Jenna, 10, stroll into the Kmart on State Road 54 on a bright, hot Wednesday morning.

They've made this trip before. They'll make it again.

All in search of the perfect lunch box.

"Maybe we'll find it this time," Mrs. Leone said. "It's made by Rubbermaid, and it's small and compact, and it's exactly what the kids want.

"I certainly hope we find it this time."

It's that time of year again: time for back-to-school shopping.

The Leones find a lot of items during the hour they spend in the store.

They find 24 pencils, 18 portfolio folders, six spiral notebooks, two pencil sharpeners, an alarm clock, a protractor, a set of highlighters, a ruler, packages of erasers, stickers and white cotton socks, markers and scissors.

"Scissors?" Mrs. Leone wonders aloud. "Why do we have to buy a new pair of scissors every year? Why can't you just keep the pair I bought you last year?"

Jenna gives her mother a wry look. End of discussion. The scissors go into the cart along with everything else.

Unfortunately, though, a thorough search of the lunch box aisle doesn't turn up the family's favorite food container.

Slightly disappointed, mother and daughter trudge to the register.

And $58.65 later, this shopping trip is over.

There will be more. Count on it.

"It just never ends," says Mrs. Leone, a reading specialist at Pine View Middle School.

"We've been to malls all over the area, we've been here to Kmart, and we'll probably have to go to Eckerd Drugs and Wal-Mart before we're done. And we've got to go back to the malls and we'll probably come back here, too."

Welcome to back-to-school shopping. This consumer ordeal falls behind Christmas _ but above birthdays _ on the scale of money it swallows.

But what parent or student can afford to pass it up?

Whether they can afford it or not.

"I joke with my kids to limit their shopping to just six months of my salary," Mrs. Leone says.

The Kmart the Leones visit is loaded with stacks of lined paper and boxes upon boxes of folders and spiral notebooks. Pens, pencils, crayons, markers, erasers, rulers, protractors, calculators, etc., etc., etc., line shelves on both sides of three aisles.

"Once school starts, it'll all be gone," Mrs. Leone says as she waves her hand over stacks of lined paper. Hence her many visits to this store.

Chris Scott, 26, assistant manager at the Kmart store, said back-to-school shopping is an important period for his store.

"It's not as busy as Christmas, but it's one of the busiest times of the year for us."

And the school supplies keep coming.

"We've got a ton of stuff for the back-to-school season," Scott said.

But not everything the Leones need, though.

Mrs. Leone and her two children, Jenna, a fifth-grader at Lake Myrtle Elementary School, and A.J., 13, an eighth-grader at Pine View, have visited stores all over the Tampa Bay area. A.J. skips this trip, choosing to remain at home.

They have been to Brandon TownCenter, University Mall and West Shore Mall in Hillsborough County, and plan a trip to Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey soon.

They have bought plenty of back-to-school clothes, including closely tailored girl's outfits for Jenna, baggier, shirts and pants and baseball caps for A.J., and new shoes for both.

All with one goal in mind:

"That perfect outfit," Mrs. Leone says. "That perfect outfit that will make them feel great for their first day back to school."

The Leones rarely clash over fashion.

"I generally agree with what they wear," Mrs. Leone says. "Especially with what Jenna wears, I think it looks very nice on her.

"Of course, sometimes they look at me and ask me if I'm going to go outside looking like I do.

This year, Mrs. Leone tried a new shopping tactic with her children. Last year she bought them several outfits, but this year she gave them a budget and loosed them in the malls.

Amazingly enough, everything the children bought was on sale.

"When I was buying everything, I didn't even know it was on sale," Jenna says. "It just happened that way."

Mrs. Leone faces a double shopping load, however. As a teacher, she too has some shopping to get done before school starts Aug. 26.

She has her list ready, albeit a short one.

"Comfortable shoes," she says. "All I need is a pair of comfortable shoes I can stand in all day long and I'm set.

"Now I just need to find a pair _ that, and the lunch boxes."