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Three parents who made a difference at their schools

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By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

MaryAnne Motter Cullen: Uncovering fraud in the district office

MaryAnne Motter Cullen, a Pennsylvania mother of nine children, was suspicious when a consultant hired to help improve the district's middle schools wasn't making things any better. Her daughter's middle school, an inner city school, had plenty of persistent problems, such as discipline issues and dirty restrooms with no toilet paper. Something didn't feel right about paying a consultant large sums of money to fix things when nothing seemed to improve.

In April 2002 she began to question the district's spending on consultants. She also sought information from the district on who was being hired and how much they were being paid. Using the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law, she was able to access the district's financial records. Cullen discovered that the superintendent was hiring his friends and family as highly paid consultants for doing next to nothing. She says the local newspaper also uncovered the district's massive misuse of credit cards.

Under mounting public pressure, the superintendent denied that one of the consultants he had hired was his brother-in-law, as alleged. At this point, the state Auditor General got into the act and launched an investigation, revealing that this particular consultant (who was receiving $1,500/day) was indeed the superintendent's brother-in-law, with a criminal record to boot.

In January 2004 as a direct result of what Cullen had uncovered the superintendent resigned. An internal audit team from the district found more evidence that the superintendent paid other relatives, including his wife, as consultants. Currently the FBI and the Pennsylvania Auditor General's Office of Special Investigation are pursuing the investigation further.

All the effort was well worth it, Cullen believes, although she says, "I was persona non grata among some status quo people, but lots of other people are saying thank you."

Ten ways to make a difference

Becoming a parent leader need not require superhuman energy and boundless amounts of time. Some basic rules of thumb have helped others to take on projects that have benefited their children's schools and, in the process, caused a ripple of positive change to roll outward into the district and the neighborhood.

Here are some tips to guide you in becoming an effective parent leader striving to make a difference at your school:

  • Speak up if you are confused, need information, or see something that seems wrong to you.
  • Identify a specific need or issue that you can work on.
  • Build a relationship with the principal so that you can set goals and expectations with him or her.
  • Don't go it alone. Build consensus. Talk to other parents. Reach out to those who usually don't participate.
  • Learn how to run a meeting.
  • Build your case. Research the issue. This might mean learning the voting history of the school board members, finding out if other schools or districts have attempted something similar to your project, or gathering data from a scientific study.
  • Get to know your school's budget. Know what questions to ask of whom; know what documents you'll need.
  • Learn to use the media strategically to advance your cause.
  • To help prevent blaming and provide a common goal, emphasize that your efforts are focused on improving the school and raising student achievement.
  • Today's parent leader must think about the interests of all the children in their school, notjust their own.

Comments from readers

"The topics were interesting. I have not seen an article that specifically addresses the plight of the rural community schools with low average family income. We struggle with small PTO bugets and work hard on various fundraising. We have a small core group of PTO parents, but as you might tell, resources are scarce, both in financial and human. Any ideas?"