The first time a PTA gets involved with advocacy is often when the school board puts a tax referendum on the ballot. Here are five things that PTAs need to know about handling this potentially first foray into advocacy.

  1. Your members decide if the PTA supports the referendum. While your school board and administrators may expect the PTA to support the referendum, it is your members who get to make the decision. The decision should be an agenda item at a general membership meeting. Make sure everyone knows that the decision is on the agenda in advance. This could be a potentially contentious meeting depending on what the school board is asking for, so you will probably want to use fairly formal parliamentary procedure for this discussion. Have a member make a formal motion for the PTA to support the referendum and get a second of the motion. Open the floor for debate on the motion. Make sure no one starts speaking until recognized by the President, and make sure that they speak to the President, not to each other. This helps you keep the debate civil. You may want to limit comments to a minute or two. If so, appoint a board member to serve as time keeper. Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak, and parliamentary procedure directs that no one be given an opportunity to speak a second time until everyone has had a chance to speak. When it comes time for a vote on the motion, if there has been a split between supporting or not or if the debate has been contentious, you may want to conduct the vote by secret ballot. If there seems to be a general consensus among members, you can use a voice vote.
  • PTA Councils only support a referendum if a majority of their PTAs support it. Just like a PTA moves at the direction of its members, a PTA Council moves at the direction of its member PTAs. Remember, a majority is one-half plus one, so in a 16-PTA council, a majority would be 9 PTAs.
  • If your PTA votes to support the referendum, there are limits on what your PTA can do to support it. PTAs are 501(c)(3) organizations, and as such we may only take positions on issues and not individual candidates under IRS regulations. The IRS regulations also limit funding of advocacy efforts to only an “insubstantial” amount of your budget, and defines “insubstantial” as 5%. That means your PTA can spend up to 5% of its budget towards information flyers, yard signs, events to educate voters on the issue, and such.
  • If you work with other organizations to support the referendum, PTA funds should pay for PTA activities. This is another IRS requirement. If your PTA is supporting a referendum, it is likely that there are other organizations doing so as well, and coordinating efforts makes sense. Make sure that PTA funds only go to PTA efforts to support the referendum. This does not mean that the PTA cannot distribute information flyers from other organizations, jointly pay for printing flyers, or co-host events, just that the PTA’s financial contribution should reflect the PTA’s share of the effort (i.e., if the PTA is taking 20% of the flyers printed to distribute, the PTA should pay for no more than 20% of the printing costs).
  • If your PTA doesn’t support the referendum, it should not actively oppose the measure. The Illinois PTA Legislation Platform, as adopted by our members, supports adequate, equitable, and sustainable funding for schools (2b), full funding of all mandated educational and special programs (3c), safe public school building construction (3e), and adequate appropriations for education (3g), local PTAs cannot oppose legislation or local measures that support these positions. If your PTA does not vote to support the referendum, it should remain silent on the issue. Given the expectation that PTAs will support referenda, such silence can often speak louder than words. Your PTA could still have a role as a neutral party regarding the referendum, such as hosting an informational meeting on the purposes and projected costs of the referendum with time set aside for questions.

Finally, if your PTA is supporting a referendum, take advantage of the new Illinois PTA Local Unit Advocacy Toolkit. You will find resources there to help plan your advocacy campaign for the referendum, develop your message, use the media effectively, write a press release, and other practical information.

Photo © 2009 by Brian J. Matis under Creative Commons license.