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.