Richard Hyatt

Richard Hyatt: The fight to save PTA at Northside High

When a new principal took over Northside High School and went ahead with plans to replace the existing PTA with a PTO, he got an immediate pushback from a feisty activist with the build of a blocking sled and found himself embroiled in a national debate that has been raging for years.

Marty Richburg succeeded James Wilson this summer and inherited a proposal to move Northside from a traditional Parent Teacher Student Association to a self-controlled Parent Teacher Organization.

Enter Charles Lawhon.

Lawhon and his wife, Becky, carry the flag of the PTA, an organization that has been around American schoolhouses since 1897. He has been a PTA volunteer for 28 years, serving at every level. She currently leads the local Council of PTAs. So when Lawhon heard Northside might turn its back on the longtime advocacy group, he fired back.

"Why would principals kick PTA out of their schools?" he asked. "A PTO is nothing but a magazine and a way to keep parent's monies inside the four walls of the schools so principals can dictate how and where it is spent "

Richburg worked with a PTO when he was principal at Blackmon Road Middle School. He said no decision has been made and that he is studying differences between the two organizations.

Lawhon informed Richburg of the process that must be followed before a PTA can be dissolved. Bylaws call for a vote of the membership and for assets and deposits to be turned over to the state if the vote to dissolve is successful.

"We will look at the individual needs of the school and see what matches our needs," Richburg said.

National PTA reports around 25,000 units nationwide compared to an estimated 55,000 PTO groups. That number is hard to pin down, for PTO has become an acronym for any independent parent group.

Local PTAs send a portion of their dues to state and local leaders while PTO dues stay in the school or the community -- a common argument against traditional PTAs.

This argument galls Lawhon, who says six local schools have turned their back on the PTA in the past four years. He isn't staying quiet this time, even threatening to oppose any future Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes for education.

"I'm not going to stand by and watch them do this."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at