Teachers are unhappy with complexity, costs of system to track spending of Classroom Supply Assistance Program money

BARTOW — The Polk County School District plans to keep using ClassWallet to account for money teachers receive from the state for classroom supplies, but make it friendlier for teachers, who have complained about the online system.

When the district started using ClassWallet this year to account for how money received from the Florida Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program — $264 a teacher a year — is spent, teachers complained about shipping and handling charges, items being delivered to wrong addresses and paying $1 per upload for receipts for items purchased outside of the online system.

Before ClassWallet, the district required teachers to turn in receipts for items purchased with the money to a school secretary, but Budget Director Jason Pitts said that process was messy and unreliable.

Despite backlash from teachers who said they want to go back to the old method, Pitts recommended to the School Board this week that the district continue using ClassWallet for the 2017-18 school year.

School Board members are OK with that, but want teachers’ concerns to be addressed.

“We somehow need to reach out to our teachers and ask the question, ‘What are some of the challenges we had?’ and see if we can smooth those out a bit,” School Board member Lynn Wilson said.

The Polk Education Association did just that in December. About 1,400 teachers responded to the survey. The PEA found that:

• Teachers have a difficult time using ClassWallet when it comes to setting up accounts, putting in bank information and being confused about what they are allowed and not allowed to buy.

• Some vendors on ClassWallet charge "excessive amounts" for shipping costs, limiting the money teachers can use on classroom supplies.

• Teachers prefer to buy from local stores and do not want to be charged money to upload receipts. 

Pitts said he will work with ClassWallet to address those problems, especially to eliminate the $1 per upload fee. If the fee can't be eliminated, School Board members asked that the district pay for the receipts to be uploaded. This school year, 3,783 receipts were uploaded by Polk teachers to ClassWallet.

The district pays ClassWallet $5 a teacher — or $27,500 — a year for its online services.

As clear as mud

State statute mandates that teachers spend the money on “classroom materials and supplies for the public school students assigned to them.”

It doesn’t explicitly say what items can and cannot be purchased, but says that the money cannot be used for equipment.

The state requires receipts be kept for four years in case a teacher or school district is audited. The Internal Revenue Service taxes districts for unaccounted money.

Last year, of the 5,500 Polk teachers who qualified for the money, only 1,200 turned in receipts for all of the money they received. About 3,200 teachers turned in receipts for part of the money, and 1,100 didn't turn in receipts at all, according to Pitts. About $73,000 went to the IRS.

Money that teachers do not spend is supposed to go to their School Advisory Council. Before there was any accounting for the money, only one Polk teacher gave any leftover money to a school in 10 years, Pitts said. 

Last year, $30,000 was given to SAC's.

This year, $287,935 has been given to SAC's — an average of $3,000 per school.

"I understand the displeasure of teachers with ClassWallet, but if you don’t use it these are the accounting problems that are presented," Pitts said.

But not all problems have been solved.

Pitts presented a 60-page list of items purchased with the money that are not allowable by statute, totaling more than $70,000 of the about $1.1 million teachers spent.

"Teachers were buying items that were definitely good for the classroom, but the understanding of what is not allowed under statute is not comprehended by all because these statutes are so clear," Pitts said sarcastically. "It's clear as mud what teachers can buy."

The list accounted for only items that cost $35 or more, and included iPads, laptops, furniture and electric pencil sharpeners. Principals were asked to make sure the items were in the classroom and had value. If they weren't, the teacher was asked to pay the money back. 

The district will recoup funds for 15 to 20 of the more than 2,000 unallowable items, Pitts said.

"I felt like I could defend this against the statute this one year," Pitts said. "It's a good learning process for the teachers: If they purchase these items next year, they'll have to pay them back."

Exploring other options

ClassWallet will remain in place for the 2017-18 school year, but School Board members are open to exploring other options for future years, including the possibility of issuing prepaid debit cards.

And because when the money reaches SAC's it isn't taxed or restricted, board members asked about the possibility of channeling the money to those committees to bypass the limitations of the state statute.

It would need buy-in from all the teachers, Chief Financial Officer Mike Perrone said, which would be difficult to get.

Pitts added that the district would need to be cautious about that option, too, because it could seem like teachers are being forced to do something.

School Board member Lori Cunningham said in addition to discussions about the different options, they should also talk to legislators about the program.

"If it's not working for us, I can't imagine everyone else in the state is excited about it," Cunningham said. "Whatever happened to saying, 'I'm going to give you $264 and do what you need to do with it'?

"I'm just so angry that we have to go through all of this for people that we trust," she added. "If I don't trust you with $264 then you shouldn't be in a classroom."

Madison Fantozzi can be reached at madison.fantozzi@theledger.com or 863-401-6971. Follow her on Twitter @madisonfantozzi.