Back-to-school shopping poses challenges

Shelly Cook calls out to her husband and 9-year-old son across the Wal-Mart at the Las Vegas Beltway and South Rainbow Boulevard. She has spotted the next item on the back-to-school shopping list they downloaded from the Clark County School District Web site,

Copy paper is one of 24 items Matthieu Cook is asked to report with to the fourth grade at William V. Wright Elementary School. (The School District posts recommendations for every grade at every elementary and middle school.)

Wal-Mart's price is $4.58 per ream. Matthieu needs two. But his parents already have splurged this morning, on a 2-inch binder for $6.97.

"It was kind of expensive," says Shelly, who works as financial director for HELP of Southern Nevada. "But he wants the kind with the plastic covering on it."

This back-to-school season means tougher choices for Las Vegans, forced by the economic crunch to rethink how they spend money.

"Though you would always like to give your children the absolute best and the newest -- and what they want -- that's just not possible when circumstances beyond your control demand change," says Michele Johnson, CEO of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Nevada.

Clark County's public high school students are told by teachers on the first day of class what supplies they're expected to purchase.

"A student enrolled in a culinary program may need to purchase a set of utensils while a student who is enrolled in a math program may need a specific type of calculator," said School District spokesman David Roddy.

The School District would not provide any estimates. But according to the Huntington Bank Backpack Index (a survey of 600 Midwestern students), high school students will cost their parents $911 in school supplies this year, middle school students $551 and elementary students $385.

Johnson's primary advice to parents is to recycle.

"Whether it's hand-me downs from the older kid to the younger kid, or bartering with your neighbors, it's not like school supplies wear out," she says.

When shopping for new items is necessary, comparing prices is more important than ever. However, Johnson advises against driving from store to store, which may eat up more dollars in gas than it saves at the checkout stand.

"You're better off buying a newspaper," Johnson says. "Every office-supply store and drug store all have back-to-school ads in the Sunday newspaper, and you can comparison shop in the comfort of your home."

Dollar stores also are a good bet, Johnson says.

"Many of the school supplies that are needed can be obtained there very inexpensively," she says.

Technically, Clark County does not require parents to spend a dime on school supplies. Indeed, the list downloaded by the Cooks clearly states that the supplies are not required, but simply recommended "to assist your child with their various class assignments."

"The School District has a policy that we provide everything that's necessary for a kid's education," says Kelly Wright, assistant principal at Wasden Elementary, where approximately 300 of 600 students are on free or reduced lunch. "So if a kid doesn't have pencils, they're not gonna go without."

However, Wright worries about the drain this policy may place on her school this year, since fewer parents than ever before are expected to provide the recommended supplies.

"Our budget right now is less than half what it was at the beginning of last year," Wright says. "So we just might have to cut back in other things, such as textbooks."

More charity would ease the crisis. Last year, Wright says, the Derfelt Senior Center donated about 100 backpacks filled with school supplies.

"We're hoping they will this year, too," she says. "And we also have an active PTA that will help."

Shelly Cook's employer, HELP of Southern Nevada, also distributes school supplies to clients currently enrolled in its programs.

"A job well done, guys," Ron Cook says as he pushes a shopping cart out to the Wal-Mart parking lot. Its $20.87 worth of school supplies include the binder, a pencil pouch, scissors, highlighters, red pens and folders -- but not the copy paper.

"There's still time to wait for a sale," Ron says.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at or 702-383-0456.