As in hundreds of schools across the state, parents at Muir Elementary in Bountiful mingled, sold colorful T-shirts and discussed plans for the year ahead as part of a back-to-school night.
Unlike at other schools, two major Utah political players also attended, watching quietly as Muir parents voted to switch their parent volunteer group from a Parent Teacher Association, or PTA, to a Parent Teacher Organization, known as a PTO.
"We're excited to become independent," PTO President Shelly McKenna told about 100 parents gathered at the school recently, "so I hope everyone is, too."
A school-choice lobbyist in attendance left pleased with the parents' decision, while a state PTA advocate departed disappointed.
Many parents occupied with kids, work and life know little about the intricacies of PTAs and PTOs. But the one letter difference between the two words holds significant meaning for those involved at the top levels of state politics. PTAs, which are present in more than half Utah's schools, are connected to the state and national PTAs. By contrast, PTOs are independent groups, financially and politically.
In recent years, Utah PTA membership has fallen by about 2 percent to 3 percent a year, a slip PTA leaders attribute mainly to busier lifestyles and other factors. At some schools, however, parents are leaving the PTA for PTOs a change some say they're making for financial reasons but others claim is instead driven by political anger toward the PTA.
"There's an organization who is really pushing hard to have PTAs diminished in the state of Utah, for a number of reasons," said Gainell Rogers, Utah PTA president, referring to Parents for Choice in Education, a group that advocated for school vouchers in 2007 before voters defeated the idea. The Utah PTA opposed vouchers.
"A strong public education system is significant for raising our communities to a higher standard," she added, "and we know that Parents for Choice aren't huge proponents for public education, and I think they don't like the respect that we have at the [Capitol]."
But Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice, said there's no campaign to push schools to drop PTAs in favor of PTOs. She said Parents for Choice has simply made itself available as a resource to help empower parents. She said she helps schools at the requests of parents, who say they want to be free of national policies and agendas.
"It's critical that regardless of what kind of parent organization is affiliated at a school, whether it be a PTA, PTO or volunteer group, we encourage participation," said Clark, who attended Muir's back-to-school night along with Utah PTA President-elect Liz Zentner. "We can't afford for our districts to be bullying parents into one particular private organization."
A matter of finance• Lisa Bradshaw, Muir PTO president-elect, said when she first began looking into a change, she had no idea things would turn so political.
Switching to a PTO at Muir was about finances, she said, not politics.
"We don't want people to think we're anti-PTA. That's not the reason why we're doing it," said Bradshaw, who has three children at Muir. "We are actually going and doing our own organization just because the money that's involved with paying the PTA. ... We just feel like it's sacred money and that parents, instead of paying a big association, that we should have more say with where that money goes."
Recently, for the first time in 12 years, the PTA raised its dues. Now, when parents pay their PTA dues on average about $5 or $6 a year in Utah $1.75 of that goes to the state PTA and $2.25 goes to the national PTA. Schools may set their dues at varying levels, and some money also goes to councils, which are district divisions. School PTAs may also raise additional money through fundraisers. The Utah PTA employs one full-time and two part-time office staffers; outside of those employees the organization operates through volunteers.
"It really comes down to the fact that you have to pay a membership fee and only 70 cents of that membership fee stays at your school," Bradshaw said of how Muir's PTA worked. When schools leave the PTA, they must give any leftover money raised as a PTA back to the state organization.
Trisha MacQueen, who was PTO president last school year at Farmington's Knowlton Elementary, said her school also swapped formats from a PTA to a PTO recently because of money. She said by keeping all the cash at the school level, the Knowlton PTO was able to pay busing costs for each class to go on a field trip.
"When you have a PTO, every single dollar that you earn through membership stays at the school," said MacQueen, who was involved with the PTA for six years before helping to lead the change. "That is the biggest reason why, as a board, we voted upon it and it passed."
Rogers, however, said she believes many parents don't understand what they're losing when they change organizations. Dues, she said, pay for a strong support system that includes leadership and legal training; the ability to connect with parents in other schools and districts; and a number of programs, such as Reflections, a popular, annual, student art contest.
Those opportunities have spurred some schools to return to the PTA.
In recent years, North Layton Junior High changed back to a PTA from a PTO.
Darla McNeil, who led the school's PTO when it became a PTA, said parent leaders missed PTA support. She said parent membership grew once the school switched back to the PTA.
"There are opportunities in the PTA that a PTO does not have," McNeil said.
Kimberly McKenzie, treasurer for West Valley City's Academy Park Elementary PTA, said she is a bit torn about the issue of PTA dues, but believes the benefits outweigh the cost.
JoDee Sundberg, a member of the Alpine School Board and an officer for the Utah School Boards Association, also said the PTA is a strong organization with influence at the state Capitol. But, she said, ultimately, it should be a school-by-school choice.
A political issue?• Though parents at Knowlton and Muir said the PTA's political agenda wasn't a concern, it is something that has been an issue at higher levels.
"Obviously, the state and national PTA get involved in politics," Clark said, "and not all parents at their school agree with those [issues]."
Through the years, some have accused the PTA of being too liberal, a claim Rogers said is untrue, though, at times, the PTA and some conservative state lawmakers have been on opposites sides of issues. In addition to opposing vouchers, the Utah PTA also lined up against a bill this past legislative session that would have scaled back sex education in Utah schools.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who unsuccessfully ran a bill in 2010 that aimed to remove references to the PTA from state law, replacing them instead with the phrase "parent organizations," said she prefers PTOs because they result in more money at local schools and aren't tied to a "national agenda." She said her bill wasn't anti-PTA but was meant to clean up state code, which shouldn't contain references to nongovernmental organizations.
"I just always feel like parents' efforts and resources and talents and time are best used in investing in the schools where their children go," Dayton said, "and not in promoting a national agenda or in promoting the national union."
Rogers, however, said the PTA's only real agenda, at both the state and national levels, is children. And that's a political issue, whether parents want it to be or not.
"By its very nature, education is political because ofthe Legislature, they're the ones who give funding to our public schools," Rogers said. "They're the ones who determine how money can and can't be spent. ... We need to make sure they're looking out for every child in the state of Utah, not just a particular group."
PTA vs. PTO: What's the difference?
The PTA is in more than 600 Utah schools and has about 120,000 members in Utah, according to the Utah PTA. School PTAs are connected to state and national PTAs, which provide support in exchange for some of a school's dues revenues.
PTOs are independent school parent organizations, not connected to the PTA. It's difficult to say exactly how many Utah schools have PTOs because they're all independent. Switching from a PTA to a PTO is a process that involves dissolving a school's PTA and obtaining tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, among other things.