Charlotte’s PTAs: A stark gap in money, services

The Children's Bookstore display at the National PTA Conference at the Charlotte Convention Center, Friday, June 26, 2015. The Children's Bookstore is donating a book for every student at Lebanon Road Elementary School on Saturday.
The Children's Bookstore display at the National PTA Conference at the Charlotte Convention Center, Friday, June 26, 2015. The Children's Bookstore is donating a book for every student at Lebanon Road Elementary School on Saturday.

Schools in Charlotte’s affluent areas routinely raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from involved parents. About two dozen of the city’s schools, most of them low-income, don’t even have a PTA.

The disparity has no easy solution, and represents yet another difficulty facing high-poverty schools in Charlotte as the school board casts about for a way to address an increasingly segregated district.

School districts in other parts of the country have gone so far as to pool parent money and distribute it to schools in need. But education leaders in Charlotte now say the best answer lies in encouraging parents in strong PTAs to volunteer their time and money in low-income areas. So far, this approach has had mixed results.

“If you reach out to them and ask them for assistance, they’re going to be there to help you,” said Wanda O’Shea, president of the Mecklenburg County PTA Council. “It’s all about every child, not just your child.”

The Observer reviewed tax filings for 80 parent-teacher organizations in Mecklenburg County that filed updates on their revenue and expenses in the past two years. The records illustrate the divided state of parent organizations in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

▪ Twenty-two parent-teacher organizations reported raising more than $100,000 in the most recent year for which records were available. Three exceeded $200,000.

▪ The highest-grossing parent organizations are almost exclusively in schools that draw from ZIP codes with median household incomes significantly above the city’s average.

▪ Parent money funds field trips, clubs, tech gadgets and teacher training sessions that aren’t available at many low-income schools, according to descriptions of how money was spent.

“It just further reinforces many of the things that we’re learning about our community: There is a difference between those schools that have resources and those that don’t,” said Bill Anderson, a former Myers Park High principal who recently stepped down as executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd.

“It’s another example that ZIP code matters in our community.”

‘Never having to worry about paper’

At well-funded schools, money from parent organizations helps make up for the things that the district either can’t or won’t provide. It pays for carts full of electronics, spruces up mobile classrooms, funds school clubs and training courses for their teachers.

Cotswold Elementary, which with $242,364 in total revenue brought in more money than any other PTA available in the public data, used its “Commit to Cotswold” program for things like Chromebook computers, new soccer goals, book sets, landscaping, author visits and field trips.

Selwyn Elementary held events for prospective parents, equipped the safety patrol, and sent children to the Mint Museum and the circus.

These are the type of things that may once have been a part of a school’s budget but have fallen by the wayside as school districts allot less money toward instructional materials.

“It means never having to worry about paper,” Anderson said. He said his PTA at Myers Park High was “wonderful” and allowed him to address priorities he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. He said it also made a big difference in retaining and energizing teachers.

Teachers in lower levels say they appreciate the help in cutting, sorting and tutoring. And in the upper grades, a PTA can both foster closer communication and lift spirits with a tray of brownies.

“It just really creates a collegiate relationship between parents and teachers,” said Joanna Schimizzi, a teacher at Independence High.

Small donations add up

Still, a larger number of schools have PTAs without much fundraising power. Others have fallen inactive. About 23 schools have no parent organization whatsoever. Most of them are in low-income areas where obstacles such as inflexible working hours can make volunteering more difficult and strained personal budgets preclude large PTA donations.

“It’s not that the parents don’t want to be there, there are just some other issues in the way,” said Harold Dixon, who works in engagement at CMS and is a former president of the county PTA council.

Instead of purchasing big-ticket items, the smaller groups tend to focus on school and community events, the tax records show.

For example, Billingsville Elementary near the Grier Heights neighborhood hosted a staff appreciation event and a book fair. Statesville Road Elementary put on a parent lunch and a canned food drive.

Idlewild Elementary in east Charlotte hosted a spring carnival with a health and wellness flair, sponsored by Publix and Harris Teeter.

“Yes, we would love to have more funds,” said S.Y. Mason-Watson, who just finished a year as president of the PTA at Idlewild Elementary. “We may not have fundraisers that bring in thousands of dollars, but people know that they are contributing toward a fund that will be used to support their children and the people who support their children.”

Low-income schools do receive several forms of support that schools in affluent areas do not. The federal government provides money through the Title I program. CMS also allocates those schools more staff because students from poorer areas tend to come to school farther behind academically and need more help to catch up.

Still, Anderson said you can’t equate the two. Title I money is heavily restricted, while PTA money is much less so.

Potential solutions

A gulf between PTAs in affluent areas and low-income areas isn’t unique to Charlotte. Some districts have gone to dramatic lengths to attack the issue.

For more than two decades, some districts have required PTAs to put a percentage of the money they raise into a pooled fund to help schools without the same power.

In Portland Public Schools, one-third of the money parents raise is put into an “equity fund” and then distributed though grants of $20,000 to $40,000 to schools in need. This year, that amounted to more than $1 million among 47 schools. Similar projects can be found in California.

Education leaders in Charlotte say that type of program would be a tough sell here. “I don’t think we should ever punish schools for raising money,” said Anderson, the former MeckEd executive director.

CMS once had a specific strategy to address the issue. In 2004, the district launched a program known as SchoolMates that paired schools with strong PTAs with schools that needed support. The program was soon championed by the wife of former Superintendent Peter Gorman.

What actually took place varied between schools, said Ana Brown, who organized it for CMS. One PTA board might advise another school on how to organize a new chapter. Two schools might have a joint “reading buddies” group.

“We believe that every school has something to share with others,” said Brown, who continues to work in the CMS community engagement department.

In 2013 – its final year – 59 schools took part. Ultimately, the program lost momentum when a new superintendent, Heath Morrison, came to the district.

Some of those PTAs that had benefited from the partnership with a stronger PTA have now had complete turnover in their leadership ranks, Dixon said. “The struggle is starting over again.”

For now, a number of PTAs in Charlotte have ongoing partnerships between schools. Elizabeth Lane Elementary, for example, supports Thomasboro Academy by sending volunteers. Selwyn Elementary has a “Books for Billingsville” outreach program.

Several school board members said encouraging those collaborations is the best way to address the issue. School board member Paul Bailey said CMS addresses disparities in other ways, including by providing more teachers at low-income schools. He said the district should stay out of meddling with PTAs.

Vice chairman Tim Morgan said he also has voted to expand the CMS engagement department to recruit more community partners that can provide services to low-income schools. One result has been Project LIFT, a public-private partnership that supports West Charlotte High and its feeder schools.

Kelly Langston, the new president of the North Carolina PTA, said she has worked to make sure PTAs are conscious of whether they are increasing disparity or decreasing it. She said she encourages strong PTAs to be sure to advocate for students across the district.

“It’s not really about the money you raise, it’s about the voice you are able to bring,” she said.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Dunn: 704-358-5235;

Twitter: @andrew_dunn

Q&A on PTAs

What is the difference between a PTA, PTO and booster club?

Parent-teacher associations, or PTAs, are local chapters of the state and national PTA organization, pay dues to those groups and abide by their rules. They also receive the support and structure the larger bodies provide. There are about 25,000 PTAs nationally, and 119 in Mecklenburg County.

Parent-teacher organizations, or PTOs, are independent and do not pay dues to broader organizations. There are about two dozen in Mecklenburg County.

Booster clubs are nonprofits organized around athletic departments, bands or theater groups to supplement their funding.

To maintain tax-exempt status, all three types are required to file reports with the Internal Revenue Service.

What can a PTA do?

PTAs have few restrictions on what they can spend their money on, provided that the organization is on board. They often fund instructional material, extracurricular activities and other “optional” things. They can also advocate for student well-being and for or against school policies.

What can a PTA not do?

They cannot participate in any political activity. They are not supposed to pay bills for the school, or be a substitute for government funding. That means they’re generally not funding teaching positions or HVAC systems.

The line can get blurry, however. In some cases, Charlotte schools have asked parents to chip in for new desks and chairs as part of an experiment in learning styles, for example.