Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Green Girl is a Community Organizer

I've mentioned how as "Happyland Elementary PTA President" I've tried to nudge our school's organization in a new direction--beyond bake sales and fund raising and into political advocacy. I'm in my fifth year as president (what happened to term limits? this is where corruption starts--one day the local grocery store is going to ask me for a little "favor," say, passing around an advertisement at the school sock hop and I'll persuade the PTA to grant it--while collecting a free bag of coffee grounds on the side--from there I'll likely spiral into deal-making and bribery unsurpassed since the Abramoff scandal).

My second year with the Happyland's PTA was harsher than exfloliating with and SOS pad. Most meetings had fewer than 5 moms in attendance--and about 5 staff members. I'd go home feeling a mix of shame and resentment--political apathy peaked in Happyland around the winter of 2003 (no surprise, consider the times, right?). The dance committee didn't have enough volunteers and we nearly canceled the sock hop. I talked to PTA members in other towns and learned their annual budgets were $20,000 to $50,000. Ours was a piddly $10,000. The 5 active Happyland members thought a fund raiser netting over $500 was a great success. I beat my head against the brick wall outside the school after each meeting.

After months of gnashing my teeth, I recalled the history of the Happyland PTA. It's origin was in a group of women who were friends. Aha! As each woman's children left the Elementary school, a piece of the PTA left with them--no one ever recruited new members. It never occurred to anyone to rebuild for future years.

The Vice-President, Liz, and I rolled up our sleeves, chomped down on the ends of fat cigars and met in a dimly lit conference room to solve the problem. No committees, we decided, just straight-out marketing to target the early childhood parents--we picked them because they haven't been suckered into coaching youth soccer and leading scout troops yet. Fresh meat.

Liz and I hit that target hard--at Pre-K/Kindergarten orientation, Open House night and on the sidelines of summer soccer games. We used all the usual tactics--shame, incentives and encouragement--to get these moms to attend PTA meetings. We brought up other PTA budgets in our meetings, counting on a collective spirit of competition (My town is better than your town--nanner nanner nanner) to raise more money and with more money, do more for our school.

Last Thursday the Happyland PTA met for the first time this school year. Almost 30 people showed up--a record. Only one was on staff, the rest were honest-to-goodness PARENTS. The committee sign-up sheet was filled that first night (another historic record) with a variety of volunteers--not the same 5 people doing all the work.

Then we reached the pivotol moment of the night, The Moment of Truth. For years I've worked towards the goal of political advocacy. I've prodded and primed the group with careful planning and well-phrased hints. South American government coups have been carried out with less patience and organization. I cleared my throat.

As a lot of you know, we've been discussing the playground situation for three years now. It's inadequate for our kids and while we've done a few things to make it safer, we really need to add new equipement. The price tag on that was around $170,000. We have to decide the future of this initiative tonight. Here are our options:
1. We fund raise 100% towards this goal--with current fund raisers we're making an average of $30,000 each year
(yeah! I know! knuckle-knocks). We could build that playground ourselves within 5 years, but that would mean spending on nothing else--no school assemblies, no classroom supplies, no teacher retirement gifts.
2. We try to solicit donations to supplement our fund raising.
3. We go to the school board and try to get them to fund the project.
I'm done talking. Let's open the floor for discussion.

Every single person who spoke wanted to go to the school board. And not just about the playground--they were mad about the lack of technology, upset about next year's move to all-day kindergarten, sick of the PTA providing what they saw as necessities for our children's education. In other words, they rallied.

We're on next month's school board meeting agenda and our PTA now has a stated goal of having parent representatives at all the meetings this year. They realize it's time to take a stand beyond standing behind a card table laden with baked goods priced at a quarter each. Friday morning the follow up calls began, fellow moms taking ownership of their committees and tasks, ready with questions and information.

I've been on Cloud Nine since Thursday--this feels really good. It hasn't been fun and there's certainly no glory (although, Mr. Grocery Store Owner? I'm wide open to a "special discount," if you know what I mean). Very soon my children's school is going to be improved in meaningful ways. Because a community of parents got their sh*t together.

And that, friends, is what a Community Organizer does.


  1. Wow! I am impressed. Community Organizers rock. So do PTA moms... do you have further political aspirations, you've covered two much-debated job qualifications. I'd vote YOU in a heartbeat.

    PS. I got kicked off parent council. The president thought I wore too much sparkly stuff and said I was "distracting". It was right after my spanky friend and I organized the coolest teacher gifts ever. Don't steal the limelight I guess.

  2. So, are you going to send this to that kook from NY and educate his a$$?

  3. Ohhhhh, don't even get me started on the PTA. Hate it. Passionately. (and I've been president, so I've seen the ugly underbelly!) I usually don't agree with their political stance on most everything and I hate giving the national body more than half of each membership fee for nothing but a bunch of useless materials.

    We've tried to quit them but guess what, we are the hometown of the founder of the PTA, so we can't.

    And even here, where money flies out of the sky (ha!), the PTA has to fund playgrounds, a lot of technology, and most extras in the classroom.

    So good luck with the school board. Hope you don't have a bunch of old people who will throw a fit if their millage rate goes up, because that's about the only way for school boards to fund anything. Or issuing bonds. That's always fun, too. Gotta pay those back, with interest. And then there's the Special Local Option Sales Tax. Lots of arguing about that here lately. Our state is cutting the money they give to the local districts, but people don't want to pay a penny extra in sales tax to fund capital improvements and technology (30% comes from people who don't even live in the county). But the list of wants never seems to get smaller. Where is that money supposed to come from?

    I'm old. I'm jaded. Been there. Done that.

    Rock on.

  4. Good job! A lot of frustrated PTA parents could learn a lot from this post...

  5. Way to go! I'm afraid I find things like PTA and HOA meetings pretty exasperating. Sounds like your community's ready to rally, though.

  6. You Go Green Girl - and I'll buy you that coffee myself!

  7. Wow! Yey for community organizers!
    I hope you've given yourself a big pat on the back for such faithful service. And that others are patting you too! That's fantastic!

    It's crazy what PTA's are having to supply schools...paper, supplies...but don't get me started. Who knows how much of my own money I've spent when I was teaching school.
    Walk away from the soapbox, Becky!
    I'm going!

  8. Yay you!

    BTW, you do remember that I'm a professional fund raiser, right? Perhaps you should give me a call so that we can brainstorm how to raise that money in far less than five years. It's conceivable you could do it in 1-3.

  9. YYYYES! You go, Green Girl! Pressure on the board is a great start. Another good step is to start writing letters to Madison, letting them know that school funding is inadequate. Great!

  10. Wow! That really is an achievement. I know how hard it is to get people involved. And then once involved, motivated. You rock!

  11. Huzzah! By the time Baby A gets to Happyland Elementary, it's going to be a mecca of education! three cheers for Green Girl!

  12. Saucy voiced my feelings exactly. We need you in politics, the world needs your eloquence, people skills, common sense, organizational skills, and above all your values. You've got my vote, too!

  13. In a nod to your inspirational involvement, I signed on for one of those PTA committees... my daughter thinks I may be a pod person because I have staunchly avoided anything that hinted at PTA involvement in past years.

  14. I had the honor of reviving a PTO on its last legs. But it was a Catholic school, I increased attendance by serving wine and cheese!


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