Over the past eight months Georgia parents 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 we have may seen the season finale. Nine days ago, PTA members wrested control from a faction that had 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. The floor candidates won, perhaps signaling an end to the turmoil that prompted the National PTA to put Georgia on probation and dispatch observers to last weekend’s election.
The damage inflicted on the PTA brand from this melee is serious: Some schools have already begun the process to become unaffiliated Parent Teacher Organizations. 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 organization.
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. 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 proposed Opportunity School District by voters in November.
It was suggested that jealousy led to Haygood’s overthrow, but it may 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. Among the revered perks he eliminated: Friday afternoon pies bought with city funds. (The bakery was three blocks from my office, and I can vouch for the pies.)
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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 see 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 compassionate request from then-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 repast, 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.”
In the past 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 get ready for the new school year and membership drives. With little explanation, the board canceled the June event, losing its venue deposit, and held it earlier this month.
The newly elected state PTA leaders bring experience serving ably at the state level. Not only must they repair and rebuild, they have to refocus Georgia PTA on children and schools.