Nashville teachers are limited to $200 when it comes to reimbursements, and for many that’s just a drop in the bucket

When Lori Kahey was deciding what career to pursue, she had her mind set on getting a law degree — until, that is, she found something else she fell completely in love with.

“I found that teaching was just something that made me happy, and I enjoy watching children’s hard work pay off,” says Kahey. She currently teaches at Tusculum Elementary in South Nashville, and now in her 24th year, she knows the ins and outs of public education. One reality of public education in Davidson County and elsewhere is that teachers often pay out of pocket for school supplies.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has an approved operating budget of nearly $900 million, not including the nutrition services fund and money that comes from federal programming and grants. Split between salaries and employee expenses like sick leave, insurance and workers’ compensation — not to mention costs like supplies, building maintenance and general operation of the building — that money is all accounted for. 

“I have spent thousands on classrooms before, especially starting out in this profession,” says Kahey. “My friend across the hall is a new teacher, and she spent around $2,000 getting her classroom ready. I don’t think she will ever spend that much again, but her classroom is beautiful and inviting, and her students love her.”

Dawn Rutledge, public information officer for MNPS, says the system’s more than 5,000 certified teachers are eligible for up to $200 a year in reimbursements. But for many teachers, that’s just a drop in the bucket.

According to a 2018 analysis of federal data by the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers spend an average of $479 a year on classroom supplies. For a teacher who is just starting out, that number can be as high as $1,000. The study also found that 94 percent of public school teachers spend money stocking their classrooms with no reimbursement.

“I am in a school with an extremely supportive community and administration and with parents that are there to support me,” says Anna Cypher, a first-year teacher at Harpeth Valley Elementary School. “Still, even with all of that support, I have spent my personal money. The majority of the money I spent went to setting up my classroom. It costs a lot to start out your first classroom, and luckily teachers who retire and stop teaching have a lot to give away, which helps, but there’s still tons of things you just have to buy. Keeping the classroom costs a lot as well. The small things really add up.”

Classroom necessities that teachers have to restock themselves can include everything from dry-erase markers and paper towels to items as basic as pencils. Those have to be purchased and repurchased throughout a school year, and then again the next year when students are back in the classrooms.

Cypher says she spent upward of $600 setting up her classroom, and that while MNPS and the parent-teacher organizations at the schools offer financial support, all of a classroom’s needs would not be met without the teacher signing a check too.

“Any teacher can be reimbursed up to $200 for any expenses they have for their classroom needs — those funds are included in school budgets and approved through school principals,” says Rutledge. “Of course we understand the needs oftentimes exceed the resources, but … $200 is the maximum that [can be reimbursed]. We’ve built a really strong partnership with organizations that supply things to schools when teachers request them, like our teacher-supply store that stocks [items including] backpacks, sanitizer, pencils and a whole slew of supplies. We’ve tried to work … to help alleviate the need for teachers to purchase using their personal money.”

Kristin Moon, who currently teaches theater at Hillsboro High School, says the partnerships MNPS fosters with organizations like PENCIL are helpful. Through PENCIL, a Nashville-based organization bridging the gap between needs and supplies, MNPS teachers are able to supplement their supply closets through the PENCIL Box. According to PENCIL, an average trip to the box supplied teachers with an average of $267 worth of items. 

“We get access to the LP PENCIL Box, which provides free supplies, and you can go on one shopping trip there per semester, which is really helpful,” says Moon. “I’ve gotten really good at budgeting my money from year to year and knowing who to ask for help with these things, but [the money] doesn’t always go a long way, and there are a lot of rules for what you can buy. There are plenty of things that teachers need, like Clorox wipes, that aren’t covered under that $200 reimbursement. If you want to do anything special in your classroom, you either have to ask the PTO or pay for it out of pocket. I’ve purchased supplies on my own dime plenty of times.”

Moon says she doesn’t see that situation changing anytime soon. She buys supplies when she wants her students to experience something aside from standard classwork and the occasional educational video.

“I try really hard to not spend a lot, because teachers already don’t make a lot of money, especially since the cost of living in Nashville has gone up so much,” says Moon. “Sometimes it seems like there are more challenges than rewards, but the kids really make it worth it. And with experience, I’ve learned to stockpile over the years and get thrifty with supplies. But when I really want my kids to experience something special like makeup design, that requires special supplies, which requires spending.”

It’s the spirit of dedication that pushes teachers to pull from their own purses.

“It’s all because we want the students to feel like they have the very best of everything,” says Kahey. “It’s a true work of heart.”

Kahey says if you want to know how you can help a teacher, just ask them directly.

“If you know a teacher, please ask them what their students need in the classroom, and if they are unable to tell you anything, please call me — I will always have a list.”