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Nebraska teachers open their wallets to improve classrooms, help students
  • Updated

Kylie Adolf knows what it takes to run a successful second-grade classroom.

She needs jump ropes. Tissues. Colorful paper. Puzzles. A princess puzzle is always a good idea.

But the Omaha second-grade teacher can’t request those supplies from her school and expect to find them in her supply closet the next week. There are no funds in the budget for that.

Instead, she spends her own money out of her teacher’s paycheck. Instead, she posts to Facebook and asks friends and strangers for help.

“My dream is to create a safe, functional space that kids know they are loved and cared for,” Adolf wrote to potential online donors.

Adolf spent an estimated $3,000 between her own money and donated money equipping her classroom last school year, her first year as a full-time teacher.

That’s not atypical. American teachers spent an average of $750 out of their own pockets — much of it on basic school supplies, according to a recent survey.

“It is a little bit frustrating when I actually added up and really thought about all the money that was poured into making everything happen the past school year,” Adolf said.

Nebraska teachers are increasingly turning to local donors and parents as they search for solutions.

Hundreds of teachers in at least 66 different Nebraska towns collectively requested more than $160,000 for classroom supplies for this school year as of Aug. 10 on DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding platform for public school teachers.

Alpaca, a for-profit company, is delivering back-to-school supplies to 700 Omaha teachers, and will continue to deliver supplies each month this school year. Parents and others interested pay a subscription that goes toward a monthly gift basket for teachers in participating schools.

“It makes me kind of crazy to think that a teacher who’s brand-new out of college, has student loans to pay, is paying $750 to $1,000 a year worth of supplies for their classroom,” said Alpaca founder Karen Borchert.

Nebraska has the fifth-lowest starting salary in the United States for teachers, according to the National Education Association — a salary over $5,000 less than the national average for new teachers in the 2019-20 school year.

After facing a rash of teacher departures, Omaha Public Schools recently announced that all full-time staff will receive a stipend of $4,500 for the next two school years.

“Coming out of college most of my first paycheck was paying for stuff for the classroom,” said Sarah Anderson, one of the first teachers to receive supplies from Alpaca last year at Western Hills Magnet Elementary School.

Before teaching in Lincoln Public Schools, Kate Regler spent between $200 to $300 out-of-pocket to set up her classroom. Today, a $350 stipend and supplies provided by Lincoln Public Schools mostly covers her classroom needs, she said.

“It’s hard for the brand-new teachers because they don’t get that right away,” Regler said.

The earliest a new teacher could receive money from LPS is the first week of September, two weeks after the first day of school, said LPS associate superintendent Liz Standish.

Alpaca’s first delivery of the school year was to arrive on teachers’ desks before students entered their classrooms.

Borchert says she started Alpaca for parents like herself who want to help teachers and schools on a more ongoing basis but might not have the time to figure out how to do so.

“I just wanted teachers to not be paying out of pocket for school supplies,” Borchert said.

Before starting deliveries at a school, Alpaca surveys its teachers and asks what they need and what they don’t want to see in their monthly gifts.

This month Borchert and the Alpaca team delivered boxes filled with prizes for students, disinfectant wipes, dry erase markers, organizational pouches, lotion, Sharpie pens and colored card stock — all from name brands.

Anderson felt her school provided her with enough basic supplies, like crayons and pencils. But Alpaca provides something different.

“These guys bring giant sticky notes with cards and felt pens,” Anderson said. “That’s the stuff we crave.”

Although the Alpaca deliveries make teachers like Anderson “do a little happy dance,” they aren’t enough to fully stock an elementary school classroom.

“I don’t think a pack of supplies solves the problem,” Borchert said. “I think parents who are supportive and connected to their schools can solve the problem.”

Teachers paying out of pocket isn’t a new issue.

Sheri Paden taught in Lincoln for 34 years. She’s now retired, but still remembers not being able to meet the financial needs of her students.

“Especially when I was in my early teaching days, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the money,” Paden said.

The supply burden on teachers increases in Title 1 schools — schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty, Paden said.

School districts serving mostly students of color historically have received $2,266 less per student compared to school districts with mostly white students. And teacher out-of-pocket spending is 31% higher in schools serving mostly students of color, according to DonorsChoose.

Of the 246 DonorsChoose campaigns for classrooms in Nebraska, almost 40% are for classrooms in schools where more than half of students are Black, Latino, Native American or multi-racial. The majority of these students come from low-income households.

Alpaca offers a subscription matching program to provide supplies in schools where there might not be enough parents able to afford subscriptions. But their supply packs won’t eliminate the need teachers feel to buy some students food and clothing.

At Bancroft Elementary, where Adolf taught last year, nearly 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Omaha Public Schools provided her Bancroft classroom with essential supplies, and Adolf spent her own money on things like cold weather gear for kids whose families couldn’t afford to replace lost hats and gloves.

“You definitely still find yourself supplementing with your own money,” Adolf said.

Like thousands of teachers, Anderson and Adolf now ask for supplies and donations through an Amazon wishlist every year.

“Teachers are desperate and broke,” Anderson said. “It’s not a great feeling to have to do that.”

Adolf has already received 45 items on her back-to-school Amazon wish list, items paid for by her family members, friends and complete strangers.

“You’d be surprised at how many people do appreciate teachers and know that, because of their salary, they don’t have the means to supply, maybe not the needs, but your goals,” Adolf said.

Still, that wish list can’t help Adolf with surprise costs that inevitably will pop up in her second-grade classroom this year at her new school, Pine Elementary, located just south of downtown Omaha.

Last year Adolf realized many of her second-graders couldn’t afford to bring birthday treats for the class. So, on each birthday, she bought frosted cookies for all her second-graders so they could still celebrate.

The added out-of-pocket costs make the second-grade teacher’s personal budget tight.

Adolf said for her and many teachers, students are more important than her savings account. The underlying problem is that she’s forced to choose between the two.

“I wanted them to know that they can come to school and an adult that sees them a lot and gets to know them really well over the course of the school year is going to make sure they’re taken care of,” she said.


The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

Mississippi capital's water disaster developed over decades
For at least the third time in a dozen years, portable toilets are parked outside the ornate Mississippi Capitol because Jackson’s water system is in crisis
  • Updated

JACKSON, Miss. — For at least the third time in a dozen years, portable toilets are parked outside the ornate Mississippi Capitol because Jackson’s water system is in crisis.

The big “Gotta Go” trailer is just one example of the city’s desperation. Many homes, businesses and government offices have had little or no running water this week, forcing people to wait in long lines for drinking water or water to flush toilets.

The scenes testify to the near collapse of a water system that residents could not trust even in the best of times. The failure to provide such an essential service reflects decades of government dysfunction, population change and decaying infrastructure. It has also fueled a political battle in which largely white GOP state lawmakers have shown little interest in helping a mostly Black city run by Democrats.

“We’re on a budget, and we have to go buy water all the time. All the time,” said Mary Huard, whose child has been forced to shift to online schooling because in-person classes were called off due to weak water pressure.

Even before the pressure dropped, Jackson’s system was fragile, and officials had warned for years that widespread loss of service was possible. A cold snap in 2021 froze pipes and left tens of thousands of people without running water. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale.

Broken water and sewer pipes are also common in Mississippi’s largest city. The Environmental Protection Agency told Jackson months ago that its water system violates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The crisis deepened after heavy rain last week flooded the Pearl River and exacerbated trouble at the main water-treatment plant during the weekend.

The lines for water formed at churches, fire stations, community centers and outside big-box stores.

Outside a high school, volunteers used a pump connected to a tanker to distribute water to people who showed up with whatever empty containers they could find. One woman brought a truck bed full of empty paint buckets. A school maintenance worker hauled away a garbage container with water sloshing over the sides.

When Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared the situation an emergency, residents had already been advised for a month to boil their water before doing everything from brushing teeth to boiling pasta.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said fixing the problems could cost billions of dollars — far beyond Jackson’s ability to pay. That ability has been limited by a shrinking tax base that resulted from white flight, which began about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970.

The population peaked in 1980 at nearly 203,000. It currently stands at about 150,000, with about 25% of residents living in poverty.

In the past half-century, the racial composition of Jackson has also changed. Once majority white, it is now more than 80% Black. The suburbs encircling Jackson are generally whiter and more prosperous and have newer infrastructure.

The mostly white, Republican-dominated Mississippi Legislature has been reluctant to offer assistance, even though the problems have disrupted daily life in the Capitol where lawmakers work for at least a few months every year.

The Democratic mayor and the Republican governor rarely speak to each other. And when Reeves held a news conference Monday to announce a state of emergency, Lumumba was nowhere to be seen. Reeves said he did not invite the mayor.

They held separate news conferences again Tuesday and Wednesday, although Lumumba insisted they are working as a team. By Thursday, the two finally appeared together.

“Right now, what we’re focused on is the operational unity that we have,” Lumumba said as he stood by Reeves. “Operational unity means that we’re focused more on our common ends and objectives than any differences that we may have revealed at some point in time.”

Reeves frequently criticizes Jackson for its crime rate and has said the city’s water problems stem from shoddy management.

“I know that the team at the state Department of Health as well as the EPA has been working tirelessly since 2016 trying to convince the city to come into compliance with the orders that have been put forth. They were generally unsuccessful at that,” Reeves said Monday.

Cecil Brown is a Democrat who represented part of Jackson in the Mississippi House for 16 years before serving on the state Public Service Commission. He urged city, state and congressional leaders to work together.

“If you don’t like each other, it’s OK, let’s say, ‘If we can’t work together, let’s put our staff together,” Brown said in an interview Thursday.

The governor has blocked some efforts to alleviate the water woes. After the city hired a private contractor to handle water billing, some customers went months without receiving bills, while others skipped payments.

In 2020, Reeves vetoed legislation that would have let Jackson forgive at least a portion of the unpaid water bills for poor people. He took a more passive approach in 2021, allowing water-payment legislation to become law by letting the proposal sit for five days without his signature.

Lumumba has complained that Mississippi, a state with almost a 40% Black population, is often overlooked by national Democrats and taken for granted by Republicans.

Criticism about the Jackson water debacle is not strictly partisan.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson, said in mid-August that Jackson leaders had not provided specific proposals for improvements.

“The city fathers and mothers will have to step up, produce that plan that we can begin to sell from Jackson to Washington,” Thompson told television station WJTV.

An infrastructure bill signed into law last year by Biden is designed to address problems like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much of that money the Mississippi capital will receive.

At the same time, Mississippi is slashing taxes. This year, Reeves signed the state’s largest-ever tax cut, which will reduce revenue by an estimated $185 million the first year and $525 million the final year.

The governor argued that cutting the income tax would “lead to more wealth for all Mississippians,” even as one of the poorest states in the nation struggles to support schools and rural hospitals.

Reeves has not said whether he will call a special session of the Legislature before January to consider aid for Jackson. Any proposals will face opposition from some Republicans who say the state should not rescue Jackson from its predicament.

But Republican state Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, along the Gulf Coast, said he is willing to help if the aid includes an accountability plan.

“The state ‘bailing out’ the city after what appears to be decades long neglect & failed leadership violates my sense of accountability & conservative principles,” Wiggins wrote on Twitter. He added that he remembers government aid after Hurricane Katrina.

“In the end, it’s about the safety of Jackson’s citizens & its economic viability,” Wiggins said.

Even when Jackson is not under a boil-water notice, Sharon Epps said she buys bottled water for her family because she doesn’t trust the tap water. She said her landlord replaced a broken line that spewed raw sewage into the back yard.

“When you can’t use the bathroom like you want to, and it’s floating in your back yard, that’s the saddest part about it. And then you can’t sit out in the back yard because it smells so bad,” Epps said. “It’s a disaster, baby.”

Associated Press Writer Michael Goldberg contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at

CCC sees 2.5% enrollment increase from fall 2021
  • Updated

Central Community College has announced total enrollment of 6,209 students for the fall semester — an increase of 153, or about 2.5%, from fall 2021.

This fall’s enrollment number was reported Aug. 31 in a news release from college headquarters in Grand Island. It includes all CCC students who study on campus and/or through distance learning — including students on the Hastings, Grand Island and Columbus campuses and at education centers in Holdrege, Kearney, Lexington and Ord.

Altogether, the enrollment total includes 2,203 on-campus students and nearly twice as many — 4,006 — who study via distance learning.

“We continue to see students appreciate the distance delivery options our faculty provide, while seeing strong growth in many skilled technology programs that require hands-on learning experiences,” said Matt Gotschall, the college president.

While collegewide enrollment numbers are unduplicated, the breakdowns by campus may vary since some students take classes from multiple campuses and centers, CCC said.

According to the announcement, the college is seeing increased student interest in program areas that support local economies, including health, skilled technology, arts, sciences and business, as well as university transfer courses and programs.

Among health sciences programs, dental hygiene, dental assisting, human services and medical assisting saw increased enrollment.

Among skilled technology programs, courses with increased enrollment include automotive, construction, diesel technology, heavy equipment operation, quality control, drafting and design technology, and welding.

Business courses such as business administration, criminal justice, logistics, information technology and media arts also are seeing gains.

So are university transfer and general education courses including early childhood education, economics, theater, chemistry, biology, art, speech and psychology.

CCC is an institution supported by property taxpayers across a 25-county region in central Nebraska and overseen by an elected Board of Governors.

Year-over-year enrollment numbers dropped 8.3% in fall 2020, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but then regained most of the lost ground in the following year, increasing by 6.3% year-over-year in fall 2021.