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Teachers shop for free donated items at warehouse

Where can teachers find some of the best back-to-school bargains?

Try a Medley warehouse with no air-conditioning, between trailer homes and a plumbing company.

The shelves are stacked with goods donated by local businesses. There are the essentials: pens, paper, folders. And the surprisingly educational items: doll heads and garbage cans.

The price is always right: free.

The warehouse -- the Ocean Bank Center for Educational Materials -- is run by The Education Fund, a local nonprofit.

“It’s like Marshall’s. You’ll never know what you’ll find,” said Zeny Ulloa, who teaches first grade at Kendall Lakes Elementary. She shopped at the center this week for goodies to fill her “treasure chest” of student rewards. She found a toy boat and tote bags. She said she gets a lump sum from her school -- about $175 -- a month into the school year. She typically invests $300-500 of her own money to buy things like paint for her classroom. “You want to make your classroom inviting, a great learning environment,” she said.

Nationwide, school and college shoppers are expected to spend $83.3 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Cash-strapped teachers are eager to pick up free supplies, even unexpected ones.

“It helps you be creative. So many times we want to do so much in the classroom, and we’re restricted by the budget,” Ulloa said.

So perfume stock cards (without the scent) become flash cards. Bead rods form the base of an acceleration experiment. Mouse pads turn into drum pads for music class. And memo paper can be perfect for drawing -- a sticker can cover the outdated company logo.

Reginald Verne, a biology teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High, stocked up on large spools of string. He’ll use it to create a food web, linking students from one end of the room to the other. “One is being eaten by the other, and the thread is the process of being eaten so they can have a visual and a feeling of what the food web is about,” Verne said. “The whole room is full of webbing. When one student touches the thread, the whole ecosystem shakes. That’s the point.”

In some ways, the educational warehouse is a lesson in economics and budgets.

Teachers can visit twice a year, more if they volunteer at the center. The must contact The Eduction Fund for a pass to come. On each visit they have 100 points to spend. Points are not based on the retail value, but on an item’s availability and popularity.

Ever-precious copy paper is limited to two reams and can cost 5-10 points a ream. Chairs with wheels are 20 points and go fast. American history textbooks are cheap: 1 point, no limit.

“It’s a rationing system, ” said Gerry Scally, who has a graduate degree in economics and previously worked in imports and exports. Managing the educational warehouse at 6890 NW 76th St. is pretty similar, he says, just smaller numbers. He collects donations, keeps the inventory and manages the pricing.

Since the center opened 20 years ago, more than 18,000 teachers have visited. The value of items given out: $6.4 million, said Education Fund President Linda Lecht.

She said it was easier at the beginning of the downturn to collect donations because companies were cutting employees and stuff.

“Now companies have downsized so much, they’re not getting rid of stuff or keeping large inventory. The material we’re getting is a lot lower than it’s ever been,” she said.

Companies that donate can get up to a 200 percent tax credit.