Georgia PTA election a chaotic affair

It was a consequential election, but the battle over how it would unfold couldn’t even start without an accurate count of the delegates

Most people don’t associate their PTA with political intrigue, but the Georgia PTA turned an often boring annual election of state leaders into a fevered process that went half a day past the deadline, with candidates’ speeches pushed back to almost midnight.

Voting for the new slate of state PTA leaders was to begin at noon Friday, but a battle over the conduct of the election, and confusion over who could vote on changing that election process, delayed an outcome until at least Saturday.

“We found the fun in dysfunction,” joked member Lynn McIntyre, who otherwise wasn’t in much of a joking mood. She is part of a growing group of members and observers who are dissatisfied with the current leadership.

The chaos stems from an unprecedented fight over control of the embattled organization, which finds itself with hostile forces on two flanks.

The National PTA is threatening to expel the Georgia PTA from its national network over damage to its “brand.” Meanwhile, superintendents in two major metro school districts are trying to starve the organization of funds until it addresses a myriad of concerns, including how it has handled member money.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, Superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, said in a letter to the organization and to other superintendents Tuesday that his district has “no confidence” in the PTA leaders because they “have provided no resolution to the identified problems, no transparency in explaining the situation to local unit members or to the school district, and no accountability for the individuals involved.”

Both he and Cobb County Schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale, who sent a similar letter this week, are asking their school PTAs to withhold their state dues.

Among the biggest issues now is the election. The current state board refused to allow any but a hand-picked slate to run for the state offices. Normally, other candidates can be nominated during the convention, but the state board wouldn’t allow it this time.

That prompted a scalding letter from National PTA President James Accomando last week.

It said his board was “closely watching” the unfolding events “and the harm being done to the PTA brand.” The missive urged Georgia “to open the election process and alleviate members’ concerns,” and said failure to do so would be “an affront” to National PTA members in Georgia “and a willful disregard for the reputation of PTA at all levels.”

Accomando added, ominously, that his board “will take appropriate action” if the election isn’t opened.

And so the stage was set for the unusual series of events Friday at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, where every vote of the delegates would count. Opponents had studied up on parliamentary procedure and planned motions to change the election process.

But in a meeting that had been scheduled to end by noon, those procedural votes were delayed by six hours, as the leadership failed to produce a reliable count of the delegates who could vote on changing the process.

Finally, around 6 p.m., they had their number, and the meeting proceeded. By 7 p.m., the opponents had made headway, forcing competing candidates onto the ballot. With all the delay, the actual voting for officers, which was scheduled for noon to 9:30 p.m., had to be continued into Saturday.

“What a mess,” said one man as he left the meeting shortly before 8 p.m.

Karen Hallacy of Cobb County was nominated from the floor for president-elect. “This is the most unusual convention I have ever attended and I have been in the PTA since 2001,” she said.

The PTA’s troubles, stewing for years, date at least back to a troubled election in 2015, when some questioned a mismatch of the number of ballots and voters. It reached a full boil early this year after what some described as a hostile takeover. The board removed its president, Lisa-Marie Haygood, who had just led the organization to a political victory in 2016. (The PTA had joined with other opponents of Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District for “chronically failing” schools, and voters overwhelming rejected the governor’s proposal.)

Haygood was removed as part of a long-running purge. The growing opposition to the current leadership called it a “petty” fight for control over an organization with little real power. The only thing at stake beyond education policy, they noted, was the budget of about $800,000, which included money for travel.

Tyler Barr, who, as president-elect, would have become president Saturday, started his term early, immediately succeeding Haygood. He has steadfastly denied the allegations, which included concerns about PTA spending, rule-making and transparency. But the National PTA soon became involved, placing Georgia on probation until Sept. 29.

“National PTA is deeply concerned about fractured relationships that are driving units and individuals away from Georgia PTA,” then-president Laura Bay wrote in a letter to Barr in March.

Those fractured relationships were on full display Friday, as the long process of candidate voting was yet to get underway, in an election that will determine who runs a group that says it’s dedicated to serving Georgia’s children.

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