PTA Groups Make Voices Heard in Richmond

PTA Groups Make Voices Heard in Richmond

Devynn Rourke is too young to drive. She’s also too young to vote or hold a political office.

However, she wasn’t too young to join in the yearly PTA Day at the General Assembly. She went along with her father, Robb Rourke, president of Carl Sandburg Middle School PTSA.

They were part of a group comprised of about 50 parents from Fairfax County who went to Richmond to stand up for public education. Several went on the bus sponsored by the Fairfax Council of PTAS; others drove down separately.

Diane Brody, president of the Fairfax Council of PTAs was on the bus; she currently has a child at West Potomac High School.

“It’s good for them [senators and delegates] to see our faces. They’re always willing to meet with us and seem to be caring,” said Brody. One of the bills she wants her representatives to vote against is HB2761, a bill which gives tax credits to business entities for eligible contributions made to eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations (NSFO). Her concern is that this contribution to private schools will further dilute money for public schools. “The integrity of the state depends on the strength of public education,” she said.

“My main goal is to improve the lives of the teachers and protect what we’ve got now,” said Brody. While she has been to Richmond before for these types of issues, she said, “Today is different. The PTA has joined with other educational groups (VEA, teacher associations, school boards, principals) — it will give us more visibility.”

Most of the other people in the bus were going for the first time. Laura Mattingly took advantage of the bus; she’s the PTSA president from Robinson High School. “I’m trying to get the state to live up to its funding obligation. If you meet with the local delegation, they know what you need.”

Juan Lopez represented Fairfax Villa Elementary School. He was the PTA president for two years and serves on Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech’s supervisory committee.

“I just want to show support for Northern Virginia and see what’s going on,” he said.

Maggie Williams is the assistant director for the Fairfax District PTA. With children in Samuel Tucker Elementary School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Williams said that she has been an activist since 1995.

“I think that the PTA is a very good voice and can be very strong. I’m pleased that the governor has included block grants — it’s important for Alexandria. We need to protect some of our state-funded programs.”

Robert Walters, PTA president for Rose Hill Elementary, said, “I’m fighting for our education dollars. I want to rattle the cage of our representatives. They need to know that we need the money.”

He went on to say, “All we have is property taxes to pay for things. If we want to do anything, we have to ask the state for permission. We need to have broader tax authority.”

Also representing the council on the bus were Dana Cimino, corresponding secretary, and Connie Lorentzen, 2nd vice-president. Cimino, whose children attend Stone Middle School and Westfield High School, said, “I want to be part of the voice.”

DIFFERENT PLACES, DIFFERENT IDEAS, yet when they arrived in Richmond, they were one voice representing Fairfax County PTAs. They met up with other PTA groups from across the state for a greeting by Governor Mark Warner. He spoke briefly to the assembled group, saying that he would continue to do what he could for public education.

Afterwards, PTA members listened while various groups presented the bills they were advocating. Among them: HB2433-sales and use tax rate increase; HB1834-scoliosis screening for public school students; HB2594, 95 and 97-all having to do with the availability of health care for every child; SB1100-character education and participation in community service; and HM1755-education sales and use tax exemptions; omnibus extension bill.

The group walked to the General Assembly Building where Chris Schmitt, first vice-president of the Fairfax Council of PTAs, and Lynn Terhar, Fairfax District PTA Director, met the group. Schmitt was moderating the meeting with the legislators.

Only seven out of the 23 elected officials who were invited, came to meet with the group.

Delegate Vincent F. Callahan, Jr. (R-34) came by the meeting room, but missed the group who was late in arriving. In attendance were Senator Patsy Ticer (D-30), Delegate Kris Amundson (D-44); Delegate J. Chapman Petersen (D-37); Delegate Timothy D. Hugo (D-44); Delegate Karen L. Darner (D-49); and Delegate Jeannemarie Devolites (R-35). Delegate Gary A. Reese (R-67) stopdped by the rally which was held later on the Capitol grounds.

THE REPRESENTATIVES were not encouraged.

“It’s grim,” said Amundson. “There’s zero chance for [Jim] Dillard’s bill (HB2433) to pass.”

Ticer said, “We’re suffering terrible setbacks because of the new composition of the legislature. We’re struggling on education. We know what it means to have so many things categorically rolled into the formula; we get so little out of the formula up here.”

Amundson said the legislature was spending a lot of time on things that don’t matter. She also said that HJ658, the constitutional amendment she put forth requesting the appropriation of public funds to Virginia students and parents of Virginia students, was killed in the House Committee on Privileges and Elections; whereas the voucher proposal received nine votes.

“Vouchers will destroy public education. There is no evidence that it improves performance. What shows the biggest single difference is lower class size.”

Hugo said that he voted against vouchers and that he’s opposed to a reduction in K-12 funding, adding that he applauds the governor for the additional money that was put towards K-12.

Devolites spoke about the work she’s been doing to get the formula changed. She would like to see the dollars reapportioned. “Those of us who represent Fairfax County bring this up over and over again, but it’s an exercise in futility,” she said.

Petersen spoke briefly about HB2025, 26—two bills designed to raise the cigarette tax; this is not a popular item in Richmond and he doesn’t expect it to be passed.

THE MEETING WAS OVER, the representatives who had pulled themselves away from their busy schedules returned to the business at hand. PTA members moved onto a rally on the Capitol grounds. There they faced the bitter cold, along with more than 200 other school advocates and listened to members from the various associations speak.

Signs were held high — “United We Stand!” “Every Child, One Voice!” Vote No-HB2761;” Standing Together for Public Education;” PTA For Education and Funding;” and for a short while, they felt that maybe they were making a difference.

On the way home from Richmond, some of the members reflected on the day.

Mattingly said that she wished more of the delegates had come to speak. Rourke, whose daughter woke up in time for the bus ride home, said that he was a little disappointed. “I was expecting so much more,” he said. “I hope the right funding for education will be maintained and I hope they will take notice that we were there. If they’re not doing the right thing, we’ll vote them out.”

Brigit Retson, president of Westfield High School PTSA, said, “I’m glad I came, I just wish there was more time.”