Nevada partners with nonprofit to dole out $8 million for school supplies, projects

Nevada partners with nonprofit to dole out $8 million for school supplies, projects
Image: Laura River for Unsplash

by April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
October 1, 2021

CARSON CITY–The Nevada Department of Education this week announced it is partnering with a national crowdfunding website to distribute $8 million in COVID-19 relief funds to teachers for school supplies and classroom projects.

It’s being called the first partnership of this type in the country.

It’s also likely needed more than ever by educators who over the course of the pandemic saw the state’s existing school supplies assistance program budget eliminated.

Here’s how the new partnership will work: Educators will submit requests of up to $800 dollars worth of supplies for their classroom to DonorsChoose, a nonprofit crowdfunding website focused solely on K-12. DonorsChoose will approve any requests that align with the state’s academic content standards or COVID-19 recovery and response priorities. Then, the nonprofit will order the requested supplies and have them shipped directly to classrooms.

At least 10,000 Nevada educators — about half the workforce — are expected to benefit. The projects will be funded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Needs have grown for teachers

National surveys of educators have found that teachers on average shell out hundreds of dollars each year for school supplies and are not reimbursed. One Economic Policy Institute analysis in 2019 put Nevada’s average at $534.

More than $13.5 million has been donated by more than 40,000 donors to support 7,843 teachers at 619 schools in Nevada, according to DonorsChoose. About half of the money was donated from out-of-state.

Nevada State Superintendent Jhone Ebert during a legislative budget hearing in April told lawmakers that, while most states saw their number of requests on DonorsChoose drop as COVID-19 spread, Nevada saw an increase in applications.

As of Thursday, almost a thousand active projects were listed on the crowdfunding website. A high school teacher asks for fragrance-free cleaning products because the scented ones trigger her migraines. A charter school teacher wants a financial literacy kit that teaches middle kids via a game titled “Allowance.” A teacher of an early elementary autism classroom at a low-income elementary school requests copy paper, glue sticks and safety scissors.

The last ask was titled: “Basic Needs!”

(According to the Department of Education, eligible existing projects who have yet to receive any donations can be removed and resubmitted to DonorsChoose for funding through the $8 million program.)

Typically, DonorsChoose adds 15% worth of fees to project requests to cover their administrative and marketing costs. But the organization will not take any part of the $8 million after Nevada legislators in the spring expressed to the Department of Education that they would have a problem with an outside organization getting such a large cut of covid relief funds.

Still, other concerns are likely to linger.

In August, during an Interim Finance Committee meeting where lawmakers approved the $8 million for the use in the partnership, Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts raised concerns the money might disproportionately go to schools that are already better resourced.

Jessica Todtman, the chief strategy officer at the Department of Education, said in an interview Thursday with the Current that the state agency doesn’t have the resources to distribute the money itself. The state also prioritized expediency over a more detailed process that might have emphasized schools with higher needs.

“It was really important that we were meeting the immediate needs,” said Todtman. “In Nevada we are two months into the school year in some places. To do something more fine tuned, we would have to wait. We’d take applications for three months, then make some determination. Teachers would not be getting things in a timely manner.”

DonorsChoose has said submitted projects will be approved within a week.

Todtman says the nonprofit will also offer personalized support for teachers who need help putting together their project request.

Teacher supply funding not prioritized

“In this moment more than ever, (Nevada educators) deserve our support and admiration,” said Gov. Steve Sisolak in a press release announcing the partnership, “and I am proud that we will be able to provide Nevada’s educators with resources to fund their classroom projects.”

But Nevada has a tenuous relationship with funding classroom supplies.

Sisolak in 2019 during his inaugural state-of-the-state address proposed raising an existing $2.5 million school supplies assistance program by $2 million. He said it would raise the amount each teacher could receive from $100 to $180. The Legislature, which takes the governor’s recommended budget and adjusts it to determine the state’s final budget, backed that proposal. That brought the program to $4.5 million per year, or $9 million for the 2019-21 biennium.

But in order to balance the state budget after it was devastated by pandemic shutdowns, lawmakers drained $4.5 million from the program during a special session last summer.

Then, for the 2021-23 biennium, the Department of Education requested the school supplies budget account be funded again at $9 million over two years. Sisolak, in his recommended budget, set the program’s budget at $0 — and that’s the amount the 2021 Legislature approved in its final budget.

This week’s announcement of the $8 million DonorsChoose partnership against a backdrop of that recent history isn’t lost on some educators.

One English teacher at a CCSD high school said he saw the previous $130 allotment for classroom supplies “laughably small” and the program as a “pathetic attempt to reimburse teachers for what they are forced to spend to make sure that their students have what the state should be providing.”

Still, the teacher continued, the previous program “was at least something that we could passively achieve.”

“This year instead of what was already a complete and absolute joke, the state education department wants us to fill out extra paperwork to show them what they already blatantly know that we desperately need in our classrooms…”

On their end, Todtman with the Nevada Department of Education acknowledges that educators still have plenty to be upset about.

“We won’t pretend $800 will change a well-informed perspective of how they are experiencing their school or how they are treated by their administration,” said Todtman. “But we see it as an important way to show educators that we appreciate them and are trusting them. We are not asking their superintendents what teachers need, not asking the community what teachers need, not asking legislators. We’re asking the teachers. That isn’t something that always happens.”

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