Alma Matter: Should Thomas Byrd, a childless guy from Prince George?s, helm Ballou?s PTA?
Alma Matter: Should Thomas Byrd, a childless guy from Prince George?s, helm Ballou?s PTA? Credit: Charles Steck

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Thomas Byrd has no children and does not live in the District of Columbia. These facts are not in dispute. What’s questionable is Byrd’s role at Ballou Senior High School in Congress Heights, where, he asserts, he served as president of the Parent Teacher Association for the just-finished school year.

Ballou’s principal, Karen Smith, asserts otherwise. “Mr. Byrd and I never agreed to that,” she says. “We never had an official election.…He did not do one thing. I’d rather him say he’s not.”

Kimberly Morton, who coordinates scholarships and outside partnerships for Ballou, says Byrd is president in quotes only and assesses the PTA as a nonentity: “I think we need one,” she says. “We have one but we don’t have one. It’s kind of defunct.”

If it existed, it hardly lit up anyone’s calendar in the 2007-08 school year, at least if you think a PTA is only as good as its

PTA meetings.

Byrd, 52, who lives in Upper Marlboro, has a vague recollection on the meetings he called.

“I don’t recall the number,” Byrd says. “I know there was a couple.”

Around three meetings? “That’s reasonable.”

But one of Byrd’s own board members can’t recall attending any of them. Philip Pannell, a longtime activist (and also not a parent), says he’s been Ballou’s PTA treasurer, but is “not sure if it’s a question of not being invited as not being informed,” he says about the lack of meetings. “Maybe there were problems with communication.”

Byrd says there was nothing wrong with his communication skills. “There’s nobody in the Ballou community that knows more about PTA than I do,” he insists.

Meetings are the stuff of No. 2 pencils, old-school relics that have long passed their usefulness. The PTA he envisions is a sleeker, more Internet-friendly model linked up through cell phones and e-mails. “We are not back in the ’50s,” he says. “Everyone does not have to come into a building to understand what’s going on and discuss the issues.”

Byrd’s hands-free ideal, staff and students say, translated into a hands-off approach when it came to a tough school year at Ballou.

According to DCPS records, Ballou clocked 16 thefts, 50 fights, one bomb threat, one assault-with-a-deadly weapon incident, one corporal-punishment incident, and nine fires (a recurring problem at the school). This tally does not include the January incident in which four students were injured in a drive-by shooting outside Ballou.

A mandatory school-uniform policy was put in place in September. By the time students returned from Christmas break, many of them stopped complying and the policy piddled out. DeAngelo Copeland, a graduating senior, says the PTA could have stepped up. “I wished it was enforced,” he says. “We wasted our money on uniforms. It was just stupid, for real.”

Kevin Green, Ballou’s parent coordinator, could have used PTA help with parent-teacher conferences. As it was, he had to try and entice parents to show up by offering door prizes ranging from a microwave to a Tupperware set and paper-towel racks. Turnout still didn’t improve; Green says only 100 parents showed up for a school with about 1,500 students.

School trips either fell apart or fell behind in fundraising. Morton says the PTA gave $500 to fund a student trip to Ghana in April and that it gave nothing for a trip to Senegal scheduled next month. So far, she says, Ballou is short $25,000 for that two-week trip.

Byrd says his PTA gave money to one Africa trip—he’s just not sure which one. He refuses to discuss the PTA’s finances. “I’m not going to disclose how much money we have in our treasury,” he says. “That’s PTA business. That’s not anybody else’s business. That’s only

for members.”

Pannell says the PTA has about $1,500 in the bank. He adds: “We can’t give money for every trip.”

Input—not money—could have helped the senior trips. Two were planned; one to Florida got canceled with a promise to make up for it with a trip to New York City. That one fell apart, too, due to a lack of parents signing permission slips as well as student interest. “A lot of seniors look forward to [the] senior trip,” says Kenneth Horne, who graduated this spring. “It really upset me. I was disappointed.…That’s supposed to be a Kodak moment, and we weren’t able to have that Kodak moment.”

Principal Smith is less worried about “Kodak moments.” She says what she most wants most is “action from parents” on the academic front. She says the PTA could have gone a long way in educating parents on the school’s various programs and how to best help their kids learn successfully.

As the year wound down and graduation preparation ramped up, Byrd was asked to address the Class of ’08. He was the last to speak.

After nearly three hours on the football field, Byrd stepped up to the podium and declared to a fidgety crowd: “You are rising! Ballou Knights take over the world!”

At that moment, his boosterism and school pride were not up for debate. But Byrd did not take the stage as the PTA president. His gym-teacher exclamations were part of his welcoming students to the alumni association, for which he also serves as president.

Green says: “We do not have a PTA. Let me re-phrase that—the PTA is inactive.”

Neither Green nor Morton is coming back for the next school year. Both were victims of layoffs. Smith calls the loss a “huge blow,” one that comes after years of dealing with a lackluster PTA.

Since taking over as principal in 2005, Smith says the PTA has struggled under mismanagement, controversy, and sporadic parental support.

Byrd was also the Ballou PTA president in ’05, although he was removed on that run by community leaders and Ballou parents. William Lockridge, who was then the Ward 7 and 8 elected member of the school board, says he believed a parent of a Ballou student should head the Parent Teacher Association. Because Byrd didn’t live in the area and didn’t have kids, Lockridge says: “He wasn’t able to pull parents in.”

After a parent took the helm, Smith says attendance improved at PTA meetings. But the president was forced to step down after being accused of stealing PTA money. Another parent stepped up, but she had to quit because of unrelated family problems.

Still, the school continues to try to reel in someone willing to take over the PTA. Rene Simms could be a contender. She just completed her term as president of Hart Middle School’s PTA, and her son is starting at Ballou in the fall. Byrd, she says, was instrumental in setting up Hart’s PTA and stressed to her that a PTA should have monthly meetings.

“I know I’ll be involved,” Simms says, but she isn’t so sure about jumping into Byrd’s shoes. “It can’t be a one-person PTA. I don’t know. I’ll have to see when I get up there.”

Meanwhile, Green has his own candidate. And so does Byrd, although he’s not saying who he has in mind. “He hasn’t been officially elected,” he says. “I don’t want to put that out there.”