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National PTA Sues Parent Organization of PTO Today

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When the non-profit National Parent Teacher Association filed a lawsuit today against the for-profit parent company of PTO Today, it shed light on what has been an ongoing, behind-the-scenes conflict between the two entities.

National PTA filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois located in Chicago against School Family Media Inc., the Wrentham, MA-based for-profit parent company of PTO Today, alleging trademark infringement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices, and other claims.

In addition to operating the PTO Today website and distributing a free PTO Today magazine to every K-8 school in the country, the company sells PTO Today Plus, a package of services for running a PTO organization.

This is the first time National PTA has filed a lawsuit against another parent-teacher organization, according to James Martinez, the PTA's senior manager of media and public relations.

According to a National PTA release, its board of directors "voted to file suit after exhausting multiple attempts to get School Family Media to voluntarily discontinue its inaccurate statements about PTA, as well as its misleading statements suggesting the company had access to, and a relationship with PTA that does not exist."

Further, the release says, "National PTA alleges that School Family Media attempts to confuse or mislead the public into believing they have a relationship with PTA in order to get advertising on their website and magazine. The suit also claims School Family Media makes false statements about PTA to encourage parent groups to leave PTA and purchase services from School Family Media as an alternative."

Tim Sullivan, who founded PTO Today in 1999, disputes the PTA's position. "We believe that the claims in the suit have no merit and plan on defending vigorously our rights to provide help to as many parent-teacher groups and parent-teacher group leaders as we can," he said in his own statement.

Betsy Landers, National PTA President, issued a quote as part of the lawsuit release: "PTA has no issue with any for-profit company that wants to provide products and services to PTA and its members. However, we do strenuously object to School Family Media inferring it has a relationship with PTA that does not exist and, at the same time, disparaging PTA to drive business their way."

"That's a funny contradiction in their claim," Sullivan said in a phone interview yesterday. "On the one hand, they say we're trying to make money by confusing the marketplace and pretending to be them; on the other hand, they're claiming that we're disparaging them. I suppose it's possible to do both, but it would be kind of dumb to do both."

According to the PTA's description of the lawsuit in its official release, PTA "has sought to resolve the situation without litigation many times but School Family Media failed to amend its practices or comply with the measures it agreed to."

For his part, Sullivan said, "Yes, we've been talking to them for years. We made many changes at their request, but not all." A key part of the dispute, he said, is PTO Today's statement that "We serve local PTO and PTA groups."

"The PTA wants us to stop saying that. ... It's exactly what we do, and our legal counsel says we can say that [because of the many] examples of local PTAs that use our services or read our magazine," he said.

Differing Organizations

Many distinctions separate the two organizations; one of the biggest is the history and underpinnings of each.

The hierarchical National PTA's work is rooted in a long history that includes advocating on state and national levels for children and educational causes. PTA members at a local school pay membership dues—generally $5 to $10 a year—which includes $2.25 sent to the national office and an average of $1.25 to the state PTA; the rest remains for the local PTA's use.

PTOs do not become part of a larger network; they operate independently. The PTO Plus suite of services and discounts costs a school $199 per year. Sullivan, who says that some 1,500 of these packages are sold each year, equates it to the kind of services AAA sells its members. PTO Today sells around 1,500 of those packages each year, and the number has remained stable.

PTA has 5 million members at 25,000 schools, a number that has also remained fairly stable—although much lower than the 12 million in the 1960s. "PTA took a courageous stand in favor of desegregation across the country in those years," says Landers. That position led to a sharp decline in membership at that time, as did the movement of mothers into the workforce, she said.

"When you look at membership today, it's entirely different. We have an economic crisis, unemployment, more single-parent families than ever and families where both parents work. It's a hard time. That also plays into membership," Landers said.

Drawing Distinctions

On the PTO Today website, Sullivan authored an article drawing the distinctions—from his perspective—between the PTO and PTA. "PTO vs. PTA: What's the Difference?" begins with a reference to a comment about PTO from a National PTA convention 12 years ago.

"The PTA just doesn't understand or just doesn't believe it. As a company, we're a media company. I think they think that we are—or want to be—a membership organization. Whether a group is a PTA or a PTO, our business model doesn't change."

Sullivan said he has no idea how many PTO members there are across the U.S., because PTOs have no statewide or national affiliation, unlike PTA. PTOs can form and dissolve without having to report to his organization.

On behalf of the National PTA, Landers said in a phone interview: "We have 5 million members, and we're a pretty loud voice on behalf of children in this country."


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