If there's one group that Wake County school bond advocates can usually count on for support, it's the active parents who volunteer in their children's schools and see the needs firsthand.
But with a month to go before the vote on the $970 million school construction bond issue, only a few of Wake's PTAs have passed resolutions in support. Controversy over year-round conversion and other issues is helping keep many PTAs on the sidelines this fall.
"We're trying to keep parents informed," said Pat Putprush, PTA president at Apex Middle School. "But we're being neutral. We're Switzerland."
With more than 50,000 members, the PTAs are a group that bond supporters and opponents both have been lobbying.
Friends of Wake County, the nonprofit group promoting the bond issue, has been sending speakers to PTA meetings. One such forum will take place at 7 tonight at Leesville Road High School in North Raleigh. Leaders of both sides of the campaign will attend the forum, sponsored by the Leesville Road Elementary School PTA.
"We feel like giving information is a better service to parents," said Angela Drum, PTA president at Leesville Elementary, one of the schools being converted to year-round.
Drum's PTA is staying neutral on the bonds. "We're not representing any side," she said.
What the speakers will talk about is a referendum on the bonds that would help pay for 17 new schools, renovations to 13 older schools, smaller repairs and maintenance projects at 100 schools, new computers and land and design costs for 13 future schools.
But what has concerned many parents is that the bonds would help pay for the conversion of 19 elementary schools and three middle schools to a year-round calendar. Some also don't like it that the new elementary and middle schools would be on a mandatory year-round calendar.
Working in conjunction with Friends of Wake County, the Wake County PTA Council has asked all 141 local PTA units to pass resolutions supporting the bonds. The Wake PTA Council has been more active at getting local PTAs involved since voters rejected a bond issue in 1999.
"[Resolutions are] a good indicator of where we stand in the advocacy program," said Cindy Smith, president of the Wake PTA Council and a member of Friends of Wake's steering committee. "It's also a good indicator if they don't pass it."
Smith said she's aware of only 12 PTAs that have passed resolutions. She said she's not worried because she expects more PTAs to pass resolutions this month.
At this time in 2000, 44 PTAs had passed resolutions in support of the school construction bond issue that year.
"It's not a good thing for them [that] they can't get more PTAs to endorse the bond," said Francis De Luca, director of the N.C. chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates limited government and opposes issuing the bonds.
Smith acknowledged that it's not as easy getting PTA support this year. She said she has heard from several PTA leaders who say the membership is divided.
"It's just a lot more controversial this year," Smith said. "You didn't have year-round conversion before."
But Smith also said many of the PTA presidents are "green" and may not realize they're allowed to support bond issues.
Liza Weidle, a past Wake PTA Council president, said some PTAs may also be too busy with fundraising activities.
So far, there are no reports of any PTA that has voted down the bond resolution or passed a resolution in opposition. De Luca said he wouldn't expect PTAs to oppose the bond issue because of the pressure being placed on them.
Neutrality is a route that's especially being followed by PTAs at the schools being converted. Some of the parents at these schools have joined groups opposing the bond issue in hopes of getting the conversions dropped.
"The PTA is supposed to represent all the families," said Michelle Hartland, PTA president at Highcroft Drive Elementary School in Cary, which is being converted. "We have families who are clearly in support of mandatory year-round and those who are opposing mandatory year-round."
Neutrality as luxury?
It's not just the PTAs at the converted schools that are staying neutral on the bonds.
Rebecca Rayfield, PTSA president at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, said she was surprised when the other PTA leaders decided not to act on her request to pass the bond resolution.
Bond supporters have had success at some schools, including ones such as Wakefield Elementary in North Raleigh that are being converted. Robert Woodward, Wakefield Elementary School's PTA president, said the group had no problem passing a resolution.
"Some people might be taking a spiteful vote, but it won't help in the long run," Woodward said. "We're in the situation we're at now because of what happened in '99."
Penny Road Elementary School in Cary isn't being converted. But concern about what could happen if the bond issue is rejected by voters helped the PTA to pass a resolution, said Susie Childers, the school's PTA president.
"Our concern is that if the bond is defeated, there will be even more year-rounds because there will be fewer funds to go around," Childers said.
Virginia Parker, a past Wake PTA Council president and co-chairwoman of communications for Friends of Wake, said she'd ideally like to get a PTA's support. But in the end, she'll settle for the opportunity to make her case.
"What matters to me," she said, "is being provided the opportunity to educate parents about the bond."
Staff writer T. Keung Hui can be reached at 829-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.