Latest DeKalb PTA fracas comes as state organization is on probation

Georgia’s PTA, under pressure to get its affairs under control, now must contend with a quarrel over the outcome of elections for a local leadership post.

Two people claim they won the same directorship over a three-county PTA district in elections on different dates that were called by competing factions.

This latest conflict reveals ongoing discord in an organization already under a microscope for internal disputes that have spilled into public view, affecting the PTA “brand.” The National PTA has given its Georgia subordinate a Sept. 29 deadline to address a raft of complaints. The Georgia PTA is at risk of losing its charter, and this dust-up won’t help matters.

The elections for District 11, which includes DeKalb, Rockdale and Newton counties, were for the term that begins with the new school year.

Jesse “Jay” Cunningham, a former DeKalb school board member who was removed from office over accreditation agency concerns, is the incumbent. He said he was re-elected Tuesday.

But, in May, the state leadership had already called a District 11 election, where Tanya Smith says she was elected to succeed Cunningham.

“So yes,” Smith said, “right now, we have two district directors.”

Smith said Cunningham failed to assign a date for the election, so the state stepped in and picked its own, which is when she won the vote. She said Cunningham lacked authority to call the subsequent election, when he won.

Cunningham disagrees.

“I can’t speak for what the state has done,” he said. “I’m moving forward with the district.”

The election uncertainty comes after the state leadership removed its own president in a surprise decision in January that had members complaining about racial bias on the majority black state board. Lisa-Marie Haygood, who is white, had made a name for herself last year as the face of the Georgia PTA as it engaged in a bitter political campaign over the control of schools. The PTA joined a coalition of educators and school boards that helped to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to take over “chronically failing” schools. Her removal sowed dissension and led to complaints to the national leadership, which intervened in March.

“National PTA is deeply concerned about fractured relationships that are driving units and individuals away from Georgia PTA,” national president Laura Bay wrote the Georgia PTA. Bay expressed “ongoing concerns about damage being done to the PTA brand.”

Members have raised concerns about transparency, financial oversight and adherence to bylaws in the purge of several leaders.

The two contestants for control in Distrct 11 have a personal animus that predates the elections. In a formal hearing months ago, Cunningham and his district board voted to remove Smith from the presidency of one of the two regional PTA councils within DeKalb.

Smith was accused of transferring several hundred dollars between two organizational accounts without the two signatures required under PTA rules.

Smith said the money was needed in the general account to cover a training trip for her and another board member. The trip had been approved by her board, but her treasurer raised questions and refused to sign the checks. Smith said she had no time to convince the treasurer or find another officer to co-sign because the deadline to register was that day.

Later, when Cunningham called her on it, she sent a scathing email to numerous PTA members in which she defended her decision and excoriated critics, calling numerous PTA colleagues, including Cunningham, “stupid.” She also called one of them “stupid old” and labeled the DeKalb school superintendent, Steve Green, “crazy.”

The email was used as evidence in the complaint for her removal. Smith said she regrets sending it. It was written in the heat of the moment and with a sense of humor that, in retrospect, did not translate well to text, she said. It was a reaction to what she deemed an overblown response by Cunningham to her signing of the checks.

“Working with a person like that,” she said, “I briefly lost my mind.”

Smith said she believes she was not technically removed because she resigned before her hearing, which she did not attend.

Both she and Cunningham said they are waiting for state leadership to resolve the election outcome. Tyler Barr, the president of Georgia PTA, was not immediately available for comment.

In the meantime, PTA members are fleeing, said Christina Bennerson, Smith’s successor as DeKalb’s Region 2 president. Those who attended the May election told her the disagreements were so intense that people almost came to blows, despite the presence of children.

“It was an embarrassment,” Bennerson said, adding that she, too, is considering quitting an organization that appears to her to have strayed from its mission. “Nobody is concerned about the kids. Everybody is worried about a position, a title.”

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