As the new school year opens, the Harford County Council of PTAs is gearing up to build on the gains it made last year in getting more county funding for the school system.
Andre A. Fournier, president of the Council of PTAs, said the group played a key role in the school system's $169 million operating budget for this school year, which includes a record $11 million increase in county funding.
"It took five years for us to get enough art teachers so that every elementary school could have art classes," said Mr. Fournier, 40.
He said getting the remaining 16 art teachers in this year's budget meant convincing the school system that the teachers were important and then convincing County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and the County Council -- who jointly hold the purse strings -- that art teachers were essential.
The Council of PTAs was also instrumental in getting enough money to hire additional elementary teachers so that 13 part-time assistant principals, who divide their time between the classroom and administration work, could be upgraded to full time, Mr. Fournier said.
This school year, five elementary schools still have part-time assistant principals.
Upgrading the part-time assistant principals was a grass-roots effort, which started when parents of elementary students were appalled at the amount of work part-time assistant principals were required to do.
"It's an impossible job," Mr. Fournier said. "Part-time assistant principals are expected to teach half-day and administer the school half-day, and they end up pulled in both directions at once."
Last year was a learning experience that taught the Council of PTAs -- which, with more than 15,000 members, is the largest volunteer group in the county -- how to work the political system to accomplish its education goals, he said.
Public officials agree with Mr. Fournier's assessment of the PTAs' political strength.
"The school system would never have gotten the art teachers or the full-time assistant principals without the PTA's help," said Albert F. Seymour, deputy superintendent of schools.
Ms. Rehrmann credits the Council of PTAs with the implementation of a 1 percent transfer tax on residential real estate sales. Revenue from the transfer tax, which squeaked through the County Council on a 4-to-3 vote, will be evenly divided between school construction and farmland preservation.
The transfer tax, which went into effect July 1, is expected to raise about $1.5 million by the end of the year.
"I'm not sure the transfer tax would have passed without their [the Council of PTAs'] help," Mrs. Rehrmann said.
"We are starting to be a crucial player making policy decisions that affect the schools," said Mr. Fournier, the fire marshal at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Mr. Fournier listed three ways in which the council has exercised influence:
* The group has learned how to lobby politicians. "No one wants to take the risk of offending over 15,350 voters," he said. Membership grew last year by about 820 members. Almost all of the county's 47 schools have a PTA chapter, he said.
* PTA members are represented on seven major school committees that make decisions on everything from when the school year starts to curriculum changes, he said.
* The traditional infighting, the "my PTA vs. your PTA" mentality, is nearly gone with PTAs working together on everything from fund-raising for library books to getting money to renovate schools, he said.
Mr. Fournier, who is in the second year of a three-year term, said he wants to build on last year's political successes to persuade PTA members to lobby local and state politicians for school needs so that they can spend less time raising money for basic school supplies and equipment.
"In my opinion, PTAs need to refocus their priorities and get away from providing instructional tools that are necessary to operate the school. That's like me having a business but saying that I can't provide you the service unless you pay me $600 so I can buy a copier," he said.
He also wants each PTA -- 42 of the county's 49 schools have one -- to keep track not only of the amount of money it raises for the schools but also the number of hours it devotes to working on school-related issues.
"I want to be able to go to the county government and the County Council and say, 'Look, this is what we have given to the school system,' " Mr. Fournier said. He estimates that he spent about 600 hours on PTA activities during the last school year.
Mr. Fournier said no one knows exactly how much money the PTAs raised last school year, but he estimated the amount at $400,000.
PTAs routinely pay for a variety of school needs -- library books; field trips; construction work, such as putting up walls in the open space at Magnolia Middle School in Joppa; and equipment, such as copiers, water fountains and computers, he said.
Harford County this fiscal year, which started July 1, ranks 20th ,, of Maryland's 24 subdivisions in per-pupil spending.
Only four counties spend less than Harford -- in descending order, Wicomico, Allegany, Garrett and Caroline. Last fiscal year the county was 22nd.
This year, the goals of the Council of PTAs include:
* Fully functional computer labs in every county school. Mr. Fournier has said that this is essential for Harford students to be as computer-literate as those in other jurisdictions.
* Greatly increased participation of businesses in establishing partnerships with schools. The council wants Harford companies take a greater role in the schools, for example, mentoring county students.
* Full-time, instead of part-time, assistant principals in secondary schools. The group believes that part-time assistant principals cannot adequately administer the schools and teach.
* Implementation of site-based management. In this approach, decisions are made within a school by administrators, parents and teachers, and are not dictated by the central administration.
* Development of a PTA resource center in each of the county's 10 library branches. The purpose of such centers would be to keep communities informed of PTA activities, as well as school decisions and issues.