With all the various fund-raisers held by elementary-school PTAs each year, on a regular basis, one might easily get the idea that a PTA's primary function is to make money for its school.
NO SOONER does the school year begin than children are asked to sell wrapping paper, candy or something else to bring in needed dollars. In the case of Union Mill elementary, prizes such as a birthday mention on the school marquee, or lunch with the principal, are awarded to children of parents bidding the most at a silent auction.
But bringing in big bucks to schools is not intended to be a PTA's main mission. On the contrary, in a Jan. 20, 2003 letter to Fairfax County Public Schools principals, the Fairfax County Council of PTAs and the Fairfax District PTA spelled out exactly what PTAs are and aren't supposed to do.
"A PTA is NOT a moneymaking or money-raising organization," stated the letter — whose authors placed the word "not" in capital letters. "The purpose of a PTA is to promote the welfare of children and should be primarily carried out through educational means."
The letter — signed by then Fairfax District PTA Director Lynn Terhar and then Fairfax County Council of PTAs President Diane Brody — also contained further directives under a section entitled "Va. PTA/PTSA Position on Fund-Raising," namely:
* Material aid to the school is NOT the function of a PTA.
* Funds raised should be for a definite, pre-determined and budgeted purpose.
* The exploitation of children for fund-raising activities should be avoided.
Terhar, a Pleasant Valley resident and parent, was PTA and PTSA president for Stone Middle and Chantilly and Westfield high schools. She's now president of the County Council of PTAs, is on the Fairfax District PTA Board and is a member of the State PTA Board of Managers.
Regarding the statement that PTAs are not money-raising organizations, she said, "That is absolutely true. The national and Virginia state PTAs emphasize that in all of our training." Furthermore, Terhar said the other directives regarding fund-raising are equally true and are still applicable today. She said they all fall under national PTA policies.
"THE REAL value of PTA is in the people," she said. "What we're about is advocacy, not money."
The letter also states that the PTA's mission is "to support and speak on behalf of the children and youth in the school, community and before governmental bodies and other organizations that make decisions affecting children." Said Terhar: "It's the published, official mission of the national PTA and all its constituent organizations."
The letter continues by encouraging PTA members to "use their time, energy and resources to lobby federal, state and local governments to support public education by passing meaningful legislation and then providing full funding for it." Terhar said this statement, too, is still the policy today.
Concerned about Union Mill's silent-auction fund-raiser, parent Susan Mason contacted Terhar in late November, shortly before Mason spoke on this topic before the Dec. 2 county School Board meeting.
"She asked me if there was some county policy that covered it," said Terhar. "I told her the activities a PTA engages in are the decision of the membership. So I told her to take it to a PTA meeting and ask if the PTA really wanted to do [the silent auction]. I told her to plead her case and have [the members] take a vote."
However, Mason had already done so, Nov. 3, and the majority voted overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the auction. Still, the issue continues to bother her — as well as some other mothers afraid to speak out against the school, with their names, for fear of retribution against their children.
A great many of Union Mill's students come from the surrounding Little Rocky Run community — where homes generally cost $500,000 and more. And Mason and some other mothers believe that the school's silent auction gives families with money — the "haves" — an unfair advantage over the "have nots."
MASON SAID that, when she addressed the Nov. 3 PTA meeting, "One mother told me that she does not choose to bid on the auctions and uses that opportunity to teach her children that sometimes, 'Life just sucks.' I didn't know 'Life just sucks' was part of the curriculum at Union Mill, and it may be OK for her to teach her children that lesson, but I never agreed for [it] to be taught to my child."
When told Monday of the Union Mill PTA's vote to retain the auction, Terhar said, "That's a pretty affluent area — where the majority of the people are the haves and may not necessarily be as sensitive to the have nots as they should be."
She said she does not know Union Mill Principal Molly Kingma, at all, so she couldn't talk about her specifically. But in general, said Terhar, "As a parent, you're always cautious about speaking out and being too vocal because the principal might remember that later."
"If a mother becomes labeled as a troublemaker, it could [be somehow taken out on her child]," said Terhar. "In a perfect world, parents would be able to speak out without fear of retribution, but you never know."