Don't Overuse Money From PTA

COMMENT

June 13, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

We were asked to pay annual dues at the door, before eve attending the first meeting.

bTC The main speaker extolled the virtues of the gift wrap that was being sold, with a show-and-tell demonstration of how much longer this wrapping paper roll was than competing products sold in the stores. She proceeded to inform us of the coming candy sale: Buy some for future birthdays, not just a measly chocolate bunny for Easter.

The buy-a-balloon event, so popular last year, would not be held because of concerns about the environmental impact of flyaway balloons, she reported.

Seizing on that opportunity, another member of the audience proposed a Santa Claus breakfast that would fill the fund-raiser void. And don't forget to mention the spring book sale cum bake sale.

Welcome to the Parent Teacher Association meeting, the thinking parent's Tupperware party, the child-delivered alternative to TV's Home Shopping Club.

Through the rest of the school year, we were implored to save the wrappers, labels and bar codes of food products made by a well-known soup company.

We were exhorted to save supermarket receipts for the school, so that it could earn computers or computer equipment. When the drive ended, parents who had counted the collected receipts were given more praise and recognition by the school than classroom volunteers who had helped youngsters through the year.

These memories were revived by a recent Sun story that PTAs have become the essential motors of school budgets, raising funds for their own schools and setting equipment priorities for those schools without parent fund-raising success.

More than acting as a lobbying group for getting more tax money for schools, the PTAs are buying basic equipment such as copying machines and computers, water coolers and library books.

They are repairing parking lots and laying sidewalks, even renovating outdated school buildings and erecting interior walls to divide formerly open class spaces.

This community-based action to improve neighborhood schools is certainly commendable. It provides the extras to bolster the educational program, acquiring equipment and supplies now, rather than waiting for some distant-future school board budget approval.

Parents who put their volunteer spirit to work repairing the buildings used by their children are also teaching more about community service than any state graduation requirement. They are not just raising dollars, but putting their muscle where their money is.

The danger of this volunteer exuberance is that the school board and government agencies come to rely on local unofficial funding to do the job that taxes are supposed to do. Instead of lobbying for higher educational funding, the PTA becomes a cash cow. Cut the office equipment fund, the PTA will come up with the money. Delay repairs to a functionally obsolete building, parents will take over the project.

Parents know that their youngsters will only be in a given school for a few years, that a five-year plan for improvements won't benefit their child who is there now. Parents have to act promptly, in their self-interest, if they can.

Another problem is that some communities have more money than others to donate outright or to buy candy or groceries that can earn equipment. School boards have to be equitable in deciding on repairs and equipment. But when the board decides that no school is to have a new copier or a CD-ROM computer library, the motivated, affluent PTA will get it for its school.

Must the board then allocate money to all those schools whose PTAs did not raise money to buy the equipment? Anne Sterling, Harford County school board president, says that is the silent policy in this county. But that policy can lead to further disparities, as the board uses tax money only to equip lower-income schools, ignoring those with better PTA fund-raising potential.

That's a difficult judgment to make. It's also hard to believe that is happening often here, given Harford's repeatedly low ranking in education spending in Maryland.

PTAs should certainly be encouraged in providing support for their local schools. That means work and money, as well as advocacy for public funding of the school system. But PTAs have to guard against fund-raising for fund-raising's sake, and to avoid the endless campaigns that sour parent participation.

They have to establish what real, and realistic, needs face their schools for the year. They should let parents know specifically where the money is going. A new photocopier may be a good goal, but a little extra money for supplies for each teacher can also be very useful.

Which brings me back to my initial PTA experience when, two-thirds through the year, my child's teacher asked parents to donate classroom supplies because the PTA had not provided its usual dole -- and the school budget had expected the PTA to do so.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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