Georgia PTA: Can a new team save the day and the membership?

The new Georgia PTA board was installed Saturday. From left: Lynn McIntyre, Lori Sweet, Shanda Ross, Debbie Rabjohn, Karen Hallacy and Tyler Barr. RACHAEL PARKS/PTA

Over the last eight months Georgia parents have watched a political melodrama befall that most middle American of institutions: the PTA. Close behind mom and apple pie, this respected institution in Georgia has become a House of Cards-style nest of intrigue.

But this weekend may have provided the season finale.

At a weekend convention, PTA members wrested control from a faction that staged a coup and was poised to consolidate its power with a handpicked slate of new officers.​ Instead, after a heated and protracted debate over policy and bylaws, other candidates were permitted to run from the floor. All those floor candidates won Saturday, putting an end to the upheaval that prompted the National PTA to put Georgia on probation and dispatch observers to this weekend’s election

The damage inflicted to the PTA brand from this melee is serious; some schools have already begun the process of become an unaffiliated Parent Teacher Organization. Last week, the superintendents of Gwinnett and Cobb, frustrated with a lack of information and transparency from the Georgia PTA and concerned over how the election would unfold, advised their PTAs to stop sending dues to the state. We’ll have to see if the election of a reform slate changes their minds.

This feud burst into the news in late January after I began receiving urgent emails from local PTA members across the state about the sudden ouster of popular and highly visible president Lisa-Marie Haygood and the board member who represented District 10, which encompasses all of Fulton County, including Fulton County Schools and Atlanta Public Schools. Those removals, like several others before them, occurred because of contortions of PTA policy by a small core whose influence and clout exceeded their numbers, according to the irate PTA members.

As the state PTA president, Haygood led the parent opposition to Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to have the state take over struggling schools. A conservative from Cherokee County, Haygood proved a powerful and persuasive critic and likely contributed to the resounding defeat of the Opportunity School District by voters in November.

It’s been suggested to me that jealousy led to Haygood’s overthrow, but I think it may have come down to “no more pie.” As a young reporter, I covered a small town where the city manager was forced out after less than a year. He had enacted new rules that didn’t sit well with longtime employees, some of whom were related to the mayor or commissioners. Among the revered perks he nixed: Friday afternoon pies bought with city funds.  (The bakery was three blocks from my office, and I can vouch for the pies.)

Over the years, I’ve seen other new managers tripped up in the same way, although they often went after bigger perks – staff taking company cars home on weekends or employees flying first-class.  (A friend once told me it was easier informing her team there’d be no raises that year than announcing they’d have to buy their own coffee and bagels.)

One of the “pies” that Haygood sought to cut was the large contingent of PTA officials attending the National convention on the membership’s tab. She also brought in a fraud investigator to look into reports of misspending.

Haygood approached PTA as a professional organization with rules while her foes seemed to treat it as a church guild that took care of its own and valued loyalty. Among the conflicts and nepotism raised by National PTA in a stern letter to the board last week: The nominating committee chair — the person responsible for providing information about how to run from the floor and the person informing people they’re disqualified from running from the floor —  was a slated nominee for office and her husband was a member of the election committee.

Here is another example of that clash of cultures: An email chain shared with me contained a request from district director Dee-Dee Jackson for PTAs to pay for a post-funeral repast for a PTA official who had lost a family member. “It could be a line item added as bereavement to your budgets or you may want to just take donations. It will be for about 150 people,” Jackson wrote.

A local PTA officer responded that PTA funds cannot be used for a funeral buffet, explaining, “This is a personal and individual issue; it is not a PTA issue. As individuals, we can donate personally.  If you are to use money from the PTA in any manner for this event, you must be prepared to provide the exact same for every child in the district.” The response was accompanied by a link to PTA documents that stated, “PTA funds cannot be diverted to other organizations or individuals.”

In the last few months, the embattled PTA board retreated into its bunker, failing to respond to even routine calls from local units and describing itself as persecuted. It bungled the annual conference, which was supposed to be early in the summer to give local PTAs time to ready for the new school year and membership drives. With little explanation, the board canceled the June event, losing its venue deposit, and rescheduled for this past weekend. Last week, no one was answering the phone at the state office and there was no voicemail.

I want to clear the record on a comment made by a PTA leader unhappy with our coverage, that I took on this story because I’m pals with Haygood. I never spoke to Haygood until she was yanked from the board. The Georgia PTA is not typically something the AJC covers.

The first and only time I met Haygood in person was in late June when I recognized her at freshmen orientation at the University of Georgia.  (As many of you have pointed out, the AJC has run her photo often during this story so I had no problem recognizing her.) We spoke all of 10 seconds as we were running with our kids in different directions.

I covered this skirmish because it was newsworthy. It remains a news story that the PTA, with deep Georgia connections, was in danger of imploding.

As the Georgia PTA site explains:

Did you know that National PTA was originally organized as the National Congress of Mothers in 1897 and was the dream of Marietta, Georgia, native Alice McLellan Birney? She was extremely sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate and aspired to build a better world for children.

Selena Sloan Butler, also a Georgia native, founded and became the first president of The Georgia Colored Congress of Parents and Teachers (NCCPT). The NCCPT was formed to function in states that legally mandated segregation. The mission of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers was to protect the rights of all children irrespective of color…Mrs. Butler believed more needed to be done. She dedicated her life to forming an organization with the primary purpose of uniting home and school into a planned program for child welfare. The two organizations, National Congress of Mothers and NCCPT ultimately united as one in the National PTA.

 

 

 

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12 comments
bicami
bicami

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Nichelle Young
Nichelle Young

This article, while partly true, doesn't report the facts of this specific situation. At the end of this "story" no PTA funds were used to send anything to the family. I am appalled that you conveniently left that part out of your story. As a new council member, I did not know the specific rule about donating funds for this type of tragedy, so I was glad to have clarity on the subject. Sometimes questions have to be asked and answered..... us new people don't know everything...... This story was just cruel and despicable. To use the untimely and hurtful death of someone's son as your platform, that's just evil. There are plenty of us who are in the PTA business for the kids. You just truly hurt an entire family with this story. Just to prove your point about someone that you don't like. As far as I'm concerned, that makes you no better. Have a good night and hopefully, now that the state membership has been heard by our votes, we can all move forward.

Ophelia Hawthorne
Ophelia Hawthorne

In what world would someone even ask the PTA to pay for a funeral buffet?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

I have to disagree. I quoted only the request in the email for PTA funding, which is not about the family but about how this organization was perceived and run. That is critical to understand. When you ask for PTA funds to pay for a private event  -- no matter how noble -- it becomes a matter for the PTA. I have to note, too, that this request was made in a email to mulitiple people. 

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

I wanted to share this note from Herb Garrett, retired educator and former executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association:

As you noted in this blog post, Alice Birney, a Mariettan, actually founded the PTA. On the campus of what is now Marietta Middle School (That was the campus of Marietta High School when I was principal there from 1981-93.) sits the Birney Memorial Garden, a national monument to the PTA and her founding of it.  Each state's PTA sent a stone that, with the sending state's name on it, was installed as part of the floor of the garden, and the pretty setting is surrounded by roses and was (at least in my day) attended to by the Marietta Men's Garden Club. 

Even back in my day, the MHS seniors were quite active in the now-very-publicly-known tradition of TP-ing the front campus, which is loaded with beautiful old oak trees and magnolia trees.  The Birney Garden, though, was treated as sacrosanct, and there was never on bit of vandalism (or, toilet paper) associated with that spot on the campus.  So, now, like Paul Harvey, I have told you (at least part) of the rest of the story.....

DrMonicaHenson
DrMonicaHenson

Thank you for the simple, clear description in this post of a complicated chain of events that has baffled me since it exploded into the media.

mrstaiwalker
mrstaiwalker

Maureen, as the mother of the child who was loss, as an advocate of PTA, as a former follower of your blog, I am very unappreciative of the "facts" used in this story. While I am in no way denying that a request was made by the district director, your blog gave all the "juicy" bits, but failed to inform your readers that no local PTA unit made any donations or amended the budgets of their PTA to provide support for my family. When I returned to PTA after being with my family during the loss of my son, I read the email request and I saw that you had been copied on the correspondence. However, I never would have imagined, nor believed that you would have used this situation, as your supportive evidence in making a point about the actions of another. You have done a fine job painting a negative image, somewhat true, about the issues that have plagued Georgia PTA. But I have never read one of your posts, where you wrote seeking to destroy the character of another at the expense of expressing a lack of human compassion for all parties involved.

For years, I have read and shared many of your blog posts because I regarded you as one of the few professional journalists. But having read this article, it is evident, you are not PTA. You, too, are part of the problem with journalism. The character of a person is greatly questionable when they seek to prove a point, or to discredit another, and can be ok with using the tragedy of another to do so. #unsubscribed

redweather
redweather

@mrstaiwalker Maureen's example showed with absolute clarity that some people, like district director Dee-Dee Jackson, have no business being in a position of authority, especially when that position can impact how PTA funds are expended.  

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@mrstaiwalker I am sorry for your loss but my use of that email was not related to the tragedy, only to how the email request departed from the strict rules of the PTA on uses of funds. I left out all details for that reason.

altAJC2
altAJC2

As a teacher I remember being pressured by my school principal to join the PTA, so that he could get cash for "100% staff participation." The problem for me and other concerned teachers and parents was that the National PTA uses its money and membership numbers to uncritically back the agenda of the teachers' unions.

Thus, independent PTOs (Parent Teacher Organizations) are springing up everywhere to return the focus to making local schools better.

http://www.ptotoday.com/pto-today-articles/article/864-switching-from-pta-to-pto

Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

Yes, I believe so. I would hope they would also review Daniel White's non-election.