The Teacher Supply Depot, which for two decades gathered and doled out loads of donated materials, books and supplies to thousands of Jacksonville teachers, was closed abruptly Tuesday.

 

The closing happened while the depot’s leader, Chris Buckley, was in Orlando receiving an award for her efforts. It also follows recent discussions about her retirement some time later this year.

“It’s a shame,” Buckley said. “There are many people who have great needs for their schools and classrooms. The community has been helping to fill those gaps.”

Buckley said she was told to send volunteers home Tuesday because of structural issues in the building. A fire inspection in December found safety issues, she said, and she had volunteers move shelves and cabinets away from windows to address some of those issues.

The depot has operated in the old Lackawanna Alternative School for nearly 10 years. The depot serves about 5,700 teachers a year, including some from charter schools.

It’s open every weekday, but its monthly and annual back-to-school giveaways are most heavily attended.

Hundreds of teachers lined up out the door last August. On giveaway those days, about 100 people volunteer to run the depot, Buckley said.

“It would be a devastating blow to the whole community” if the depot closed, said Christi Veleta, a longtime volunteer. “Chris has established a huge network of contributors and businesses. She doesn’t just get cast-off items. A lot of companies donate new and discontinued things to her.”

Companies like Michael’s, JoAnn Fabrics and Vistakon donate everything from bookcases, file cabinets and furniture to used computers, rugs and rain barrels, Veleta said.

Teachers get bags of free books, as well as file folders, pencil sharpeners, tape dispensers, crayons, games, lab equipment, binders and decorations, added Sharon Williams, another volunteer and retired teacher.

The depot also serves as a classroom of sorts to some students with developmental difficulties, who learn work skills while helping out, Williams said.

District officials say they don’t intend to permanently close the depot. They just want to make sure its location is safe.

Superintendent Patricia Willis wrote in an email to the board that the district is assessing the cost of repairing the building before seeing if the depot can reopen there or elsewhere.

“Our corrective action plan is now underway and several actions have already been implemented, such as repairing emergency escape windows, moving excess stock to district warehouses until needed, and clearing emergency escape routes,” Willis wrote. “That work will continue, while at the same time, the district has engaged an engineering firm to investigate structural concerns with the building itself.”

One structural concern caused a room full of arts and crafts to be closed immediately, Willis said.

Volunteers, however, said that room’s floor has been bowing for years; why close the building now?

Buckley said she has fought off prior efforts to close the depot, and she worries about its future now that she is preparing to retire.

“At this point in time, there are people in the district I report to who want it in their area and under their control, ” Buckley said. “They’ve taken the building. Then they can have the program.”

Some teachers and volunteers say they hope the depot reopens in its current location, but if not, they don’t want it at the district’s Bulls Bay warehouse because it’s too far.

For now, it’s unclear when the depot will reopen and where.

“In the event the building is deemed unusable, the district will identify another location to house this program. There are no plans to discontinue (it),” a district statement reads.

Denise Smith Amos: 904-359-4083