The school system has gone from barring the distribution of fliers about religious groups and the Boy Scouts to barring all fliers, even announcements from the PTA.
On Aug. 10, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that the Montgomery County School Board violated the First Amendment because its policy on what paper fliers can be sent home with children does not protect against discrimination.
On Aug. 16, Superintendent Jerry Weast suspended the flier policy in order to protect the school system against legal action. His counsel advised that Montgomery County Public Schools can allow all fliers to be sent home, or none to be sent home. Weast opted for the latter.
“Clearly we will have to review our policy in light of the court’s comments,” said Weast in a statement. ‘‘But I continue to believe that the volume of material, unrelated to school, delivered home through the time and energy of our staff and students, must be limited.”
The school fliers controversy began in 2001 when the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland filed suit against the school system for refusing to distribute announcements about its Bible-related programs.
A press release on the school system’s Web site listed the “Parent Teacher Association, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.” as organizations barred from flier distribution.
The Board of Education plans to amend the policy this fall. PTA parents worry that countless volunteer hours and fund-raising dollars will be missed in the meantime. The PTA regularly sent home fliers about fund-raisers, festivals, classroom support activities, after-school activities and PTA meetings.
Board of Education President Charles Haughey of Rockville said the decision to include the PTA among the groups barred from flier distribution is unfortunate.
“I would like the court to have determined what was school-related and what was extraneous,” he said. “Certainly I believe the materials that the parent teacher groups use is directly related to the school. I hate to see a blanket prohibition of any of the material.”
However, Haughey said that Weast’s hands were tied by the Appeals Court ruling.
“As I read the opinion, the court said that it would be unconstitutional for us to use our discretion in prohibiting the distribution of certain specific materials, so we can distribute everything or we can distribute nothing,” he said. “I would not want to put the children in the position of transporting everything that comes to the school.”
LAST YEAR at Potomac Elementary, the PTA spent thousands of dollars funding art, music and classroom reading programs.
“The majority of fundraising activities ultimately goes into programs for the school and children — things MCPS is not providing, like playground equipment and additional things for the media center,” said Tim Burch, recording secretary for the Potomac Elementary School PTA. “Everything the PTAs generate … goes toward supplementing and enriching the programs for the students.”
At Churchill High, the PTA sponsored "Every Fifteen Minutes," a program about the fatal dangers of underage drinking and driving. It also spent thousands of dollars on equipment for teachers and new furniture for the media center.
Blocking the traditional communication medium of the PTA could be detrimental to schools in terms of volunteering and supplemental funding.
“I’m very concerned about the impact this is going to have on PTA programs,” said Haughey. “We welcome everything that can be done to encourage PTA members to come to meetings at the school to interact with the faculty…. PTAs are in many ways partners in education, and we cherish their involvement.”
While the policy is suspended, the PTA is also blocked from Connect Ed, the school’s phone mail system, and advertising on the schools’ Web sites.
“We were actually in the process of … utilizing the Potomac Elementary website to expand the PTA website,” said Burch. “[The flier suspension] sort of brought that to a screeching halt. It forces PTAs to have a stand alone Web site and spend funds that they wouldn’t have necessarily had to” such as postage for mailings.
ADVOCATES FOR PTA flier distribution emphasize the special relationship between PTAs and schools.
“It’s not clear why the PTA is being excluded along with everyone else, since our role is so clearly separate from other organizations that might be sending out material, like sports … or acting or chess clubs,” said Diana Conway, president of the Potomac Elementary PTA.
Burch said he was surprised by the Superintendent’s decision.
“Since the MCPS Web site prominently displays that the PTA is a partner of the school system, by implication all local PTAs are partners … in helping the school system achieve its goals,” he said. “No Child Left Behind encourages involvement and participation from parents in helping to achieve the goals of the school system.”
The legal address of each PTA is its school’s address, and many school events and programs are intertwined with the PTA.
“At Back to School night and the Open House, the PTA helps so much it’s not even clear whose event that is – is that a PTA event or a school event?” said Conway.
The timing of the decision less than two weeks before the start of school presents challenges for the upcoming year.
“The beginning of the school year is an important time for getting volunteers and kicking everything off for a successful school year,” said Burch.
“The thing that most gravely concerns me about this is that it is the worst possible timing for a decision of this kind to be handed down to the school system,” said Haughey. “If this ruling had reached us in May or April we would have had the summer to consider. Now we’re in a position where we have to react to the word unconstitutional.”
Burch said that PTA representatives will be out in force at the Board of Education meeting on Aug. 24.
“There’s been quite a phone and letter-writing effort to try to resolve this issue before Open House and Back to School night,” he said.
“There’s a huge push from the county PTA to get people to inundate the board to create a policy pronto for separate standing” for the PTA, said Conway.
Haughey said he believes that a new policy needs to be considered by the Board of Education’s Policy Committee. He said he will have a better idea of when the PTA can expect a new policy after Thursday’s meeting.