The PTA in Richmond County has a new leader, and she’s making big changes on how the organization operates – starting with its relationship with the Richmond County Board of Education.
Dawn Duncan, a mother of five and long-time PTA volunteer, was elected president of the Richmond County Council of PTAs on Oct. 30 with a 10-7 vote by members. She replaces Monique Braswell, who served as president since 2011 and recently announced her intentions to run for Board of Education in 2014.
Braswell ended her presidency with a contentious relationship with the Board of Education and Superintendent Frank Roberson, who in May called for the Georgia PTA to investigate financial issues at a local school overseen by Braswell.
Duncan, 42, said one of her first goals is to set up a meeting with Roberson to discuss her vision for the district and how the PTA can work with school administration to better local education. She said her goals are to strengthen the PTA, increase training for members and make the focus of the organization about advocacy.
“All of us need to work together to get it done,” Duncan said. “If it looks like we’re divided, we’re pulling the parents and the teachers and the students in between, and that’s not fair. We can’t have infighting.”
Duncan said another goal is to boost membership this year, which is currently at 3,500 members, down from 4,519 at the end of the 2012-13 school year. After Braswell’s first year as president, membership shot to 13,000, making it the most improved council in the nation.
Local PTA participation also dwindled this year when about 10 schools converted to Parent Teacher Organizations, or PTOs, after Roberson sent out an e-mail to principals in September urging the switch. According to Director of Internal Auditing Linda Lamar, the district now has 29 active PTA and 22 PTO organizations.
While PTAs are membership organizations affiliated with state and national chapters, PTOs are independent parent groups that have finances monitored by the school system.
Roberson said he suggested schools switch because several had issues with PTAs last year. The issues came to light when the Willis Foreman Elementary School principal and PTA president questioned a bank account Braswell set up while she was the school’s treasurer and several transactions she made over the summer when school was closed.
The Georgia PTA investigated the issue and “did not find any evidence that anyone had taken any PTA funds,” according to the audit. However, the audit covered activity at the school between September 2012 and May 2013, which did not address transactions Braswell made during summer 2012 that school officials questioned.
While Roberson said he needs to have a discussion with Lamar, the internal auditor, to decide if the issue should be re-evaluated, Braswell said she leaves with no wrongdoing.
“The biggest things I’m proud of is fighting against the charter school bill and House Bill 123,” Braswell said, referring to two controversial pieces of education legislation that arose last year. “I now have brighter things in my future.”
Duncan said she is working to move beyond issues that arose before her time and wants participating schools to understand the purpose of PTA – to raise money for schools, increase parent involvement and represent families.
Duncan said she plans to expand training for PTA council members and parents by bringing in state officials for information sessions and using local Council leaders as teachers. She hopes to boost membership by helping parents understand they don’t have to spend an entire day at their child’s school volunteering to make a difference.
“You have volunteers who sit at the school all day long and other parents see that and say, ‘There’s no way in the world I can do that, I have to work, I have small children,’ ” Duncan said. “So they don’t believe they have a contribution, but they do.”
However Duncan said her main goal is to increase PTA’s role in advocacy. After her 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with bone cancer last year, Duncan learned what it meant to be an advocate – she researched her daughter’s illness online, built the courage to ask doctors pressing questions and realized it is OK to question the experts sometimes.
She said the PTA’s role is to inform parents, teachers and students about educational or community issues and help them find answers when there is a problem. It’s not just fundraising, she said.
“Really standing up for your children is what I’m pushing now because I know it well,” she said.
Duncan grew up in Augusta, graduated from Glenn Hills High School and earned a degree in psychology from Georgia Southern University. She was a Census worker for about a decade until switching to be a full-time mother last year.
While raising her five children, the oldest 19 and youngest 4, Duncan stayed active in PTA. Over 14 years she has served as a school PTA president and was most recently the second vice president for the Council.
“I want everybody to feel like we need them, not that we just need your $5,” Duncan said. “We need what you have to say, we need your opinions and contributions.”