For nine hours every week veterinarian Julia Carter works as a science teaching aide at Nottingham Elementary School, bringing in hands-on projects to supplement what the students learn in their regular classes.
When Nottingham first-graders were studying fish, Carter took four of the aquatic creatures to the school to show students how their body structure enables them to swim. With second-graders she has used Play-doh and lights to demonstrate how the earth orbits the sun.
Yet Carter is paid not by the Arlington school system, but through funds raised by the Nottingham Parent Teacher Association.
This has angered some school and PTA officials who worry that allowing local PTAs to fund teachers will create inequalities in the county’s schools, since less affluent PTAs may not be able to afford hiring additional personnel.
“PTAs are not supposed to be hiring people,” said Anne Reynolds, president of the County Council of PTAs. “That is the job of the school system, not the PTAs.”
This practice also goes against the Virginia PTA’s position that while local branches are free to purchase materials for use in schools, it should not be involved in funding the hiring of teachers or personnel.
Ramona Morrow, president of Virginia PTA, said the mission of the PTA is to advocate for issues regarding education and children’s health and safety, and “strongly advises against” local units funding school personnel.
The School Board renewed the Nottingham science aide, and two other PTA-funded teaching aide positions, at a meeting last week by a four to one vote. All grants or donations to the school system involving the hiring of personnel must be approved by the superintendent and the School Board.
Members of the Nottingham PTA defended the decision to pay for outside aides like Carter. Sandy Barrett, president of the Nottingham PTA said she considered Carter an “enrichment aide” rather than school personnel and therefore did not believe her hiring was in conflict with the state PTA’s position.
SOME SCHOOL OFFICIALS believe the funding of teaching positions by PTAs has the potential to create inequities between schools, because more affluent communities in north Arlington are using their fundraising prowess to provide their children with additional resources that other PTAs cannot afford.
If one school hires additional support, such as a math or science aide, the School Board should explore whether this is needed in other schools across the county, said School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes.
“If we think this is necessary to deliver our curriculum we should pay for it,” she added.
In deciding if the school system will accept outside funding for building and ground improvements, School Board members consider whether it would “foster or exacerbate inequity among schools, including exploration of whether other schools would want a similar feature,” according to school policy documents.
Hynes would like to see the same language added to the provision on grants and gifts for hiring personnel, but doubts the majority of the board would favor changing the guidelines for hiring because it could mean the elimination of aides.
The Nottingham PTA has discussed partnering with a less affluent PTA in the county to help them pay for teaching aides, said PTA President Barrett, but is adamantly opposed to prohibiting PTAs from funding personnel.
“I would love for every school in Arlington to have a science aide,” said Carter, who has a third-grader at Nottingham. “But we don’t want to deny our kids what we are able to provide for them.”
The four school board members who voted for retaining the aide positions said there was no policy in place to deny allowing PTAs to fund personnel. The board should not take any steps to deter PTA involvement, said board member Elaine Furlow.
“It’s best to encourage that support,” said School Board Chair David M. Foster. “We don’t want to discourage PTAs from pitching in.”
Many new initiatives at schools start out as grassroots programs funded by PTAs, and if they are successful they are then expanded county-wide. PTAs serve as “laboratories for improvement,” Foster said, and restricting their latitude would eliminate an important incubator for ideas.
But Superintendent Robert G. Smith said he would take a “second look” at the issue if the County Council of PTAs raises an objection to the status quo.
The school administration strives to eliminate inequalities between schools and devotes funds accordingly to mitigate disparities, said Mary Beth Chambers, interim assistant superintendent of finance.
“Our staffing and resources do truly follow the need of the kids,” she added. “If these are effective programs we will work with schools to find ways to fund it.”