Julie Porter’s kindergarten class at Adams Elementary School in Fort Wayne has a new love seat with cushions, a couple of chairs and a little table.
There’s also a display tempting her 24 beginning readers with friendly picture books.
Those new classroom features typically would have been paid for by Porter, but she took advantage of a website devoted to getting teachers what they need: donorschoose.org.
Backed by high-profile celebrities including Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks and actor Ashton Kutcher, the website encourages teachers to post their needs, big or small, and wait for someone or some organization to finance it.
On March 10, Porter’s $348 project and all other Hoosier teacher requests on the website were flash funded by the Herbert Simon Family Foundation and the Indiana Pacers Foundation, both in Indianapolis, as part of a #BestSchoolDay national event at Donors Choose.
"I was so excited, I can’t even put it into words. I honestly didn’t really think it would get funded. I was hoping it would, but I don’t have a lot of well-off friends," said Porter, who is still paying off the student loans she used to finance her teaching degree.
Paying for books, classroom furniture and technology, among other things, helps teachers who might otherwise spend their own money on classroom supplies or extras.
Although the Donors Choose website Porter used has been around since 2000, television comedy star Stephen Colbert boosted its profile last May when he funded all the classroom projects in his home state of South Carolina. His actions prompted #BestSchoolDay.
The website states that teachers in more than two-thirds of all public schools in America have made project requests and more than 2 million people have donated $400 million. More than 17 million students, mostly from low-income or disaster-stricken areas, have benefited.
Linda Shafer, a third-grade teacher at Adams, has had 12 projects funded since 2012. Shafer said she checked out the website after Stephen Colbert mentioned it on television.
Her projects have ranged from books to hands-on science kits; classroom furniture that conforms to the new FWCS environmental, anti-allergen building codes to an iPad mini lab that cost nearly $3,200.
"More than half the teachers here have written grants and had them funded," Shafer said.
The help comes at a good time for teachers. Since 2011, when state right-to-work laws went into effect, teachers have not had the standard incremental – or "step" – raises they were used to. Instead, extra money comes in the form of a stipend based on a teacher’s evaluation.
A school district can award raises, using up to one-third of the state-generated general fund that is used to pay salaries. That occurred at Southwest Allen County Schools last summer, where teachers have also tapped into Donors Choose, a representative said. Northwest Allen County Schools last fall awarded teacher raises that were split, two-thirds to base salary and one-third as stipend.
At East Allen County Schools, a five-year teacher’s contract is up this summer when the stipends will go into effect.
But because of state funding last spring, there was no money for raises at Fort Wayne Community Schools, an urban district with about 30,000 students. To equalize teacher pay, FWCS dipped into a federal TIF grant that runs out next year. Teachers who were at the level of the "district average pay" got a 1 percent raise, money that came from the general fund, Kathy Friend, chief financial officer for the district, said.
To continue with those salary efforts, cuts may have to be made elsewhere, warned Julie Hyndman, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association.
Figures supplied by the Community Research Institute at IPFW paint a bleaker picture of educational salaries.
In 2005 the average annual salary of teachers and other workers in the educational system, such as bus drivers, food service workers, substitute teachers and teacher’s aides, was $37,733 in Allen County. Teacher salaries make up 40 percent of the number, said Valerie Richardson, CRI research associate. In 2010, it was $38,146. In 2015, the number fell to $36,933.
Richardson said the falling number reflects two possibilities: experienced higher-wage earners are retiring after taking a hit in the recession in 2008, and "teachers are not getting a lot of raises."
Towles Montessori School teacher Diana Crisler continues to dip into her own pocket for many things, including food she buys to teach students how to cook.
"It’s not our school system’s fault," Crisler said, echoing what other teachers said. "It’s just we don’t have the money." Nor are many of the parents well-funded, although some try to help out, she added.
"Even the PTAs are having a difficult time to even fund certain projects," said Crisler, who also has student loans after 20 years of teaching. "Parents aren’t able to afford to give money to the PTA. It really affects everything possible."
For that reason, Crisler said Donors Choose has been a "godsend."
Even with the tremendous help Donors Choose has offered, Shafer finds herself buying for her students, many of whom fall in the low-income category. She often buys socks and belts; she can’t resist buying Matchbox cars for the boys and stickers.
"You want to keep them motivated and you spend a lot of time with them and you care. You break down and spend it and explain to your husband later," Shafer said.