Race and rivalry split Georgia PTA

It’s known for bake sales, art auctions and playground picnics, but the staid reputation of the Georgia PTA is being riven by allegations of strong-arm politics and toxic rivalries that are pushing members away.

The board of directors, which is supposed to represent the interests of parents, teachers and children, staged what vanquished former members describe as a hostile takeover with racial overtones. In recent months, a controlling faction of the board voted off several peers, black and white. There are questions about an election where more ballots were counted than there were delegates voting, plus claims that clever alterations to policies and procedures allowed the faction to hijack the organization.

It peaked last month when the board removed its president, a white woman who led the PTA to a prominent political victory that earned a national award for advocacy. Other board members have been removed or resigned in protest and hope the publicity from the tempest will cause members to stop paying dues and trigger a reckoning.

“It is just a huge mess,” said Barbara Pitts, an Atlantan who resigned from the board recently, frustrated by meetings that got bogged down by bickering about who got to go on expenses-paid trips.

Pitts, who is black, said the disputes were often racially-tinged and that the board is controlled by black members.

“All of it was petty,” she said. “I think that whole board needs to be cleaned out.”

There appears to be little of consequence at stake for those involved, other than ego and control over a budget of about $800,000 (2015 IRS document) that pays for things such as leadership training for local PTAs, conferences, expense accounts for hotel stays, meals and travel to conventions. Some of the budget comes from the $1.50 in dues from each Georgia PTA member. The officers are all volunteers and receive no pay.

But the rift could threaten the political might of an organization that helped defeat a November education referendum backed by top state political leaders.

PTA leadership characterizes it as a minor dispute that has distracted but not deterred the organization, saying the present leadership continues to work for Georgia’s 1.7 million public school students.

Even so, former insiders say the claimed membership of 300,000 has sagged to less than 250,000 while the infighting atop the organization has boiled over for several years.

The board's dumping of the president in January sparked the resignations and drew public attention. Lisa-Marie Haygood of Cherokee County had led the PTA's campaign against Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed Opportunity School District, which he had promoted as a central element of his second term education agenda. If voters had approved the constitutional amendment in November, the state would have taken over low-performing schools from the local school districts.

In a bit of irony, just days after Haygood’s January 28 removal, the national PTA announced an award for its Georgia affiliate due to the successful campaign.

“Lisa-Marie was one of the stars of the campaign; I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Louis Elrod, who organized the coalition of groups working against the initiative. The PTA, he said, has been “a very important voice for parents.”

The Georgia PTA leadership has not disclosed why it removed Haygood, and she is not talking.

The board normally includes six officers elected by the state membership, plus about a dozen district leaders elected by region and special seats filled by the board. It typically has at least 30 members.

Haygood’s removal left President-elect Tyler Barr in charge. He said in an interview and a series of written statements that the board removed Haygood and other board members properly, but gave no reasons, citing “the sensitivities and confidential nature” of what happened and adding that the remaining board members “strongly disagree with any accusations of impropriety about the board’s handling of affairs.”

Barr said the organization was never bogged down by disputes about expenses. It's still planning its annual event at the Georgia Capitol Thursday when moms and dads meet lawmakers, will hold a June convention and will send members to a national PTA event in Washington to mingle with members of Congress.

Barr said Haygood is not the only one who deserves credit for defeating the Opportunity School District, noting that he and other PTA leaders also campaigned across the state.

“This was a board effort. Everybody worked together, not just Lisa-Marie,” he said.

Barr said there was no takeover, hostile or otherwise, and he downplayed the controversy, blaming it on personal differences. “People are not going to get along wherever you go,” he said.

So what happened? How did a group of volunteers become so inflamed that they were moved to purge fellow volunteers from a group that aims to be a “powerful voice for children?”

Many of those interviewed said race became a dividing line, even for people of the same color.

“They’re trying to make the board as black as possible. That’s been the goal for a very long time,” said Kiddada Asmara Grey, of Cobb County. “I’m black and I don’t get it.”

Grey said she was removed from the board after she disagreed about a policy change advocated by Rita Erves, who is black and a former president.

Erves had the support of a black faction of the board, Grey said, adding, "Either you were with the black people or you were with the white people." Grey said the formal reason for her removal was missing meetings. She said she was volunteering with the PTA while also raising children and attending graduate school.

Though there appears to be a long history, the most recent chapter began in 2015, when hundreds of members from schools across Georgia convened to elect new state PTA leaders. More ballots were cast than the number of voters attending, said several former board members. This led them to suspect the integrity of the election.

A video recording of the vote count supplied by a source shows that there were 313 possible votes in the elections of each of five officers. Yet more votes were counted in four of the races, including as many as 325 for the President-elect Barr.

“They played with the ballots, and that was obvious,” said Marina Staples, who was removed from the board last summer because, she said, she was openly critical of Erves. Staples ran for one of the two vice president seats and won. She feels her victory was legitimate but questions other race results. There was a request for a recount, but the board declined, opting instead to destroy the ballots, she said.

Cheryl White, who was a vice president, was on the ballot for president-elect, a board position that winners hold for two years before they segue to the two-year presidency. She lost to Barr. Like Staples, White was suspicious about the outcome because of vote mismatches. “We all were like, wait a minute, the numbers aren’t adding up. What’s going on?” she said.

White, who is African American, also said Erves used race to divide and control the board. It was, she said, “team Rita versus team white.”

Barr said the board remains diverse, though he could not provide details. As for the election, he recalls a chaotic day, and said he doesn’t remember everything. But he said he believes his particular race was fair, with an accurate vote count. “I don’t recall a mismatch in my numbers,” he said.

The video shows he received 251 votes, which made him a clear winner. But the total votes for both candidates for president-elect was 325, which is 12 more votes than there were ballots. The video also shows he made a speech on the floor after the count was announced and after a member complained about the vote total. He urged members to effectively move on, saying, “respect the election process” and to “get back to the business of our children.”

Erves did not respond to requests for comment that Barr said he relayed to her. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also sent a query to what appeared to be her official Georgia PTA email address and left a voicemail on a number linked to her.

Barr wrote that the board was unaware of allegations that Erves used race to sow dissension and manipulate members. The board “does not believe these allegations have any merit,” he wrote.

Several interviewed said Erves had mastered the PTA’s arcane bylaws, policies and procedures, and outmaneuvered opponents to solidify power.

One recent change seemed aimed at undermining the influence of the local PTAs with the biggest and most engaged membership, said Vickie Riccardo, who as co-president of the north Fulton County Council of PTAs is a liaison to the state PTA. She said the board changed the rules to reduce the number of leaders at the local level.

Riccardo said PTA units in north Georgia — an area where whites are a majority — were the most affected, and the rule change could diminish that area's clout by discouraging involvement and depressing membership. "We have too much power in voting," she said.

Barr said he hadn’t heard about Riccardo’s complaint. During his one interview, he referred questions about expenditures to his prior written statements.

He wrote that independent audits of the organization’s books came back clean and that no PTA credit cards were known to have been used for personal expenses. He said a fraud specialist had identified nine cases of theft or misappropriation, but only at local PTAs. The organization’s district leaders forwarded the concerns to the state level where, he said, they were investigated and, when warranted, reported to police.

But one former board member, Shanda Ross, said a case she is familiar with got reported despite the state board.

Ross said she brought a Clayton County case to police, with the help of the since-removed PTA fraud specialist, a volunteer named Nicole Ponziani. Ross said their investigation proceeded despite pressure from Erves, who Ross said retained informal control of the board after her term as president ended in 2015.

“Her feedback to me was I was jeopardizing the organization by going to the authorities,” said Ross, who was the district PTA leader over Clayton. “I got the sense that she was trying to stop everything.”

Ross said parents at a second school also came to her with questions about money, but she won’t be able to do more investigations. Ross, who is black, said she got on the wrong side of Erves, who she said called her an “Uncle Tom,” an insult for African Americans. Ross said she got an email from the PTA the day before Haygood’s removal: it told her that she was also being removed from the state board.

That same day, Ponziani, whom the board had previously tried and failed to remove, resigned. Reached by phone, she had no comment. But she provided a copy of the resignation letter she sent to Haygood the day before Haygood was removed. It said she identified and reported over $70,000 worth of asset misappropriations “throughout the Georgia PTA footprint” but had decided to quit “due to the ongoing alleged retaliation for my fraud work, including harassment and personal attacks.”