Parent-teacher associations allow students to acquire new spirits clothes or go ice skating with their class. They host staff lunches during Teacher Appreciation Week and help pay for school supplies.
These independent organizations play a central role in the types of enrichment opportunities that students, primarily elementary school students, and teachers in Arlington Public Schools have access to.
And a PTA’s ability – or lack thereof – to pay for these activities varies widely by zip code. Some PTA executives tell ARLnow that they know the money raised by their organizations can exacerbate existing inequalities between Arlington schools, and are trying to raise awareness and effect change.
“We already have unequal schools and on top of that – like icing on a really thick cake – it makes the disparities worse,” said Emily Vincent, member of the Arlington County PTA Council.
ARLnow requested and obtained copies of the 2018-2019 budgets for a sample of PTAs from elementary schools in the northern, central and southern parts of Arlington. Individual PTA revenues ranged from $ 30,000 in South Arlington to over $ 125,000 in North Arlington. ATP spending ranged from $ 18,000 to $ 139,000, a differential of nearly eight times
While T-shirts and lunches are the bread and butter of PTA spending, other common expenses improve the school through new furniture and books, or add to the curriculum with the outdoor education and field trips.
Many APTs did not respond to our requests for comments or a copy of the budget.
Vincent said she saw similar discrepancies in the 2017-18 school year budgets that she collected. PTA revenues in individual schools ranged from $ 20,000 to $ 200,000, and overall, PTAs in Arlington spent $ 2 million. About 75% of that spending took place north of Route 50, she said.
(Neighborhoods north of Arlington are generally wealthier than those south of Route 50, which have higher poverty rates and lower household income levels.)
The Arlington County Council of PTAs tries to address these deep-seated differences between its chapters. For about six years, the board has managed a grant fund: PTAs donate to the program and those who need additional funding apply for a grant. A 2019 report on the fund said most of the beneficiary schools use the money to pay for books, furniture and school trips.
But the grant fund can’t go any further, especially because demands exceed donations, Vincent said. Establishing a new policy could help address systemic inequalities, especially around ATP purchases which, if supported by APS, would result in a more equitable distribution of resources, he said. she declared.
“We hope for a culture change,” said Vincent. “I think a lot more of our PTA leaders understand that their decisions aren’t limited to their school.”
No school is an island
Over the past decade, graduates Tuckahoe Elementary School PTA President Allison Glatfelter said the APS has grown from a federation of schools operating almost independently to a united school system. This transition, she said, revealed to what extent some PTA budgets support the functioning of schools.
It was common for schools to improve their grounds with PTA funding without going through APS, she said. The budgets indicate that some associations have developed tracks, installed sun screens or repaved their yards. Tuckahoe’s PTA has already paid for a pond that the parent organization continues to maintain, she said.
Nowadays, she said the wealthiest PTAs spend money “on things that are hard to see,” like teacher training or, in the case of Jamestown Elementary, a dedicated horticulturalist.
APTs are funded by donations and membership fees, but the bulk of it comes from fundraising: from “no-frills” fundraisers at auctions to restaurant parties in which a local restaurant donates a percentage of sales.
According to the budgets ARLnow secured, the wealthiest PTAs in North and Central Arlington have set aside tens of thousands of dollars for educational opportunities and capital improvements. All that money is not being spent, which means the same schools have reserves over $ 100,000.
Tuckahoe, for his part, is trying to change his relationship with fundraising and maintaining reserves, Glatfelter said.
“We have definitely cut back on fundraising. We don’t need the extra things we were spending money on. Our children don’t need extra excursions to places where we can take them on weekends, ”she said. “None of our schools should have huge budgets because we are a great school system with a lot of money.”
Vincent said she was not sure APS understands how much PTAs can contribute to school budgets. A policy that caps fundraising or redistributes donated furniture could equalize student experiences and ensure administrators keep tabs on the budgets of schools that rely heavily on their PTAs, she said.
The need for a policy
APS ignores contributions from parent-teacher associations and generally does not rely on their funds for investment projects, APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said. That said, there is an interest in writing a policy that promotes equity between schools.
“As happens in many school divisions across the country, some PrEA may raise more money than others, which tends to lead to inequalities in the availability of resources,” Bellavia said. “That’s why there is a will to create a policy around it.”
But, he said, such a policy would have to examine how the school system might regulate independent organizations, which raises many open questions: Would it impose limits on fundraising? What happens if a PTA increases more than the limit allows? How would APS provide equitable funding to schools that cannot fundraise to the same extent?
School board candidate Mary Kadera said there needs to be more cooperation between schools and APS administrators.
“In a well-intentioned effort to provide support and rewarding experiences to their own school communities, local PTAs sometimes end up exacerbating inequalities between schools,” she said. “It’s really important that school and district leaders work with local PTAs to make sure this doesn’t happen, and in particular to avoid the expectation that PTAs would have to pay for types of. Basic educational experiences, materials and support we want for every child in our school district.
Changing the charitable discourse
Located near the Lubber Run community center in the Buckingham neighborhood, Barrett Elementary School taps into both resource-rich and poor neighborhoods, said PTA chairman Will Le.
“We are a point of reference because we are at the center,” he said. “We have a lot of need, but we have a lot of generosity. “
About 50% of Barrett’s students are English language learners and 61% to qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. Some families could not afford cleaning supplies, diapers and food during the pandemic, while others had to spare.
Le said Barrett’s parents raised $ 26,000 in grocery gift cards, while the PTA used its own funds, a national PTA grant, and purchases through an Amazon wishlist to distribute around 70,000. $ in essential items and products. Barrett also received donations from teachers at Yorktown High School and Tuckahoe, he said.
The contributions are invaluable, but they cannot be the model for how resource-rich and poor schools interact, Le said.
“I see this within our own ZEP: some neighborhoods are better off, and we have the community of Buckingham which is not well off, but they are part of our community. They do family dance evenings, they volunteer to cook and decorate the hallways. Everyone is involved, so it’s not like the money and the effort are going one way, ”he said.
Le said he wanted PTAs and schools to organize more inter-school activities so that the relationship was not defined by charity.
“I’m not the type to make anyone feel guilty,” he said. “I’m somewhere between an idealist and a realist: we know the problems, but are there ways to reduce the disparity? “
Hannah Foley contributed to this report