Owen Scholastic Academy Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Inside a skating rink, flashes of light bounce across the floor as loud music thumps a rhythmic beat and children skate in clumps, squealing as popular songs play.

Karla Hylton and other mothers who belong to the parent-teacher organization (PTO) for Owen Scholastic Academy watch the commotion from a table near the door, where they collect $5 admission from skaters and their parents. In just a couple of hours, they will collect enough to cover the $450 expense of renting the rink.

“This is just a fun activity for kids,” Hylton says.

Owen’s PTO sponsors after-school activities for students and their families every month, and at the end of the year they host events to congratulate students and teachers for doing good work.

Sometimes these events make a profit, but those proceeds are ploughed back into other fun things to do, never spent on supplies, teachers or equipment for the school, which members believe should be covered by public education funding.

“It is very tempting, but we have to be clear what our responsibility is and what is the responsibility of the board,” says local school council member Barbara De Kerf-Simoda, whose son is in 5th grade. “The PTO only pays for extras.”

In many ways, Owen’s PTO harks back to an earlier era, when parent groups hosted bake sales and volunteered to help teachers in classrooms. And while it is more active than most, Owen’s PTO is typical among the 292 PTAs and PTOs in CPS schools that have registered as charitable organizations. An overwhelming majority—some 86 percent—have not filed tax returns because they are only required for organizations that raise $25,000 or more.

PTAs and PTOs have similar missions to organize parent involvement at individual schools. The difference is PTOs are independent, whereas PTAs pay dues and are affiliated with a national organization. The National PTA organization focuses on child advocacy, but its leaders realize that fundraising is increasingly important and they are making strides to support those efforts. “While education budgets shrink, more schools are relying on fundraisers to make ends meet,” say National PTA officials in a statement on the organization’s web site.

Owen’s PTO, however, doesn’t try to help with the school’s overall budget difficulties. Instead, they raise just what they need to put on the events and provide the extras that bring cohesiveness to their school—about $30,000.

Among the events it holds every year are a mother-daughter fashion show, a fun fair complete with the Jesse White tumblers and a dance contest. They’ve also bought books for a special reading program in which students compete to accumulate 1 million minutes of reading at home. If they accomplish the task, the PTO puts on a pizza party for the students.

Principal Stanley Griggs, who has worked at Owen for three years, says he’s impressed by parents’ enthusiasm. Parents at the school where he last worked were very poor and unable to spend as much time helping out. Ashburn, the community where Owen is located, is better off economically and has been slowly changing over the last decade from an enclave for Eastern Europeans to a neighborhood of black and Latinos.

The small magnet school is eligible for some extra funding through poverty and desegregation grants. Griggs is using a chunk of the $89,000 the school got this year to pay for a full-time music teacher. If there were more money, he would hire a lead math teacher and a literacy specialist, he says.

Griggs, however, says he has never thought to ask the PTO to pay for these positions. In fact, he has never been in an environment where parents have contributed that way to a school. Yet he said he would consider asking. “I could use the extra funds,” he says.

De Kerf-Simoda says the answer would be no. She gained a better understanding of Owen’s budget situation when she swapped her PTO position for a seat on the LSC. During her tenure on the council, the school has lost funding for some staffers, including a special education teacher last year.

Still, she doesn’t think the council or the principal should ask the PTO to raise money to make up for lost funds. De Kerf-Simoda says former PTO presidents drew a line between what the PTO should and should not pay for. Those lines should remain intact, she says.

“We have been stringent and that didn’t always make the [former principal] happy,” she says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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