Why Oak Cliff’s ‘mommy mafia’ is at war

The Rosemont Elementary School upper campus. Questioning whether the Rosemont Early Childhood PTA should give money to other schools has caused a divide in the organization.

Emily Ruth Cannon found herself in the bathroom of the historic Turner House, crying so hard that she broke out in hives. In what she describes as her “most Batman move ever,” she snuck out the back door and escaped in the caterer’s truck.

This was not how Cannon had pictured the day unfolding.

It was Founder’s Day, the annual celebration of Rosemont Early Childhood PTA’s storied past. Pink and cactus décor brightened the brunch tables. Former presidents and alumnae, many whose little ones are all grown up, comingled with the group’s newer members, some carrying babies in their wombs.

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Cannon, the current president, opened the February event with a speech lauding the inclusive and progressive women on this year’s board. It would be the first year in RECPTA’s more than nine decades of existence that funds raised could be doled out to as many as 22 elementary schools in Oak Cliff. 

This shift felt abrupt to some of RECPTA’s alumnae. The group has long been a major source of financial support for its namesake school, Rosemont Elementary, raising roughly $30,000 annually at its auction party.

Though it began as the Rosemont Preschool Association in 1926, over time, RECPTA morphed into an umbrella group for a wide swath of families. Members live as far north as Uptown and as far south as Red Bird. Of the organization’s current members, 26 percent are zoned to other Dallas ISD schools. Many families, whether they live inside or outside of Rosemont’s attendance boundaries, choose private school or homeschooling. 

The current board decided last summer that the group’s financial giving should broaden to reflect its expanding membership. They updated the budget to reflect that change, and members voted to approve it. They sent letters to 22 Dallas ISD elementary schools in Oak Cliff’s District 7, inviting them to request funds. RECPTA raised $376,652 between 2000 and 2017. Every dollar went to Rosemont Elementary, except for $162 donated last year toward art supplies at Hogg Elementary, just east of Rosemont.

Cannon finished her speech and gave the floor to RECPTA’s past presidents. One by one, as they stood to speak, they emphasized the important relationship between RECPTA and Rosemont Elementary. One woman warned the board that giving other schools access to funds could spell ruin for the organization. 

Cannon, caught completely unaware, says she quickly realized that these were not spontaneous responses; this was an orchestrated ambush. Her fears were confirmed when one alumna interrupted the auction party presentation to motion that all of the money raised should go to Rosemont. 

“I should have realized that something was brewing, but I didn’t because no one communicated it to me or the board — very intentionally,” Cannon says. “It was the least classy thing I’ve ever seen at Turner House, and I went to the New Year’s Eve party there one time.”

The divide exists between people for whom RECPTA is an extension of Rosemont, and others, like most current board members, who see it as a way for new, bewildered parents all over Oak Cliff to connect and find support. 

The board may have felt bombarded on Founder’s Day, but “actually, the opposite happened, too,” says Amy Tawil, a past RECPTA board member, past Rosemont PTA president and current Rosemont kindergarten teacher. “The mission changed, the funding changed, and we didn’t really have conversations about this. Both sides were shocked.”

Preschool associations like Rosemont’s, associated with a particular school, were more common back when the neighborhood school was the automatic choice for Oak Cliff parents, whether that school was Rosemont or Reagan, Stevens Park or Winnetka. But along the way, the neighborhood school became less and less inevitable as more choices cropped up. A Dallas Morning News headline in August 1972, a year after the school district’s court-ordered desegregation, states, “Oak Cliff has 32 new private schools.”

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In an era when school choice disperses neighborhood families, RECPTA draws them together. Cannon has a child at Rosemont, as do two other RECPTA board members. Another board member sends her child to Hogg. Still others have children in private school, and several don’t yet have school-age children. 

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Discussions about whether to give to other schools have taken place for years, the board says. Even though a good number of RECPTA’s current and past members live outside of Rosemont’s attendance boundaries, they often transfer in. Rosemont’s 332 transfers make up nearly one-third of the school’s population. More recently, however, some RECPTA members have chosen to fan out to other neighborhood public schools. 

The reason this year’s board made changes is because “we’ve grown,” Cannon says. “Oak Cliff has changed in 90 years, and we just don’t agree with the philosophy of, ‘It’s always been this way.’

“To us, this wasn’t controversial. We had no idea this would be such a heated thing.”

Tensions boiled over once again when Hogg parent Rob Shearer published an opinion piece on Medium.com. The piece launched a Facebook firestorm four days before the RECPTA auction party. 

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“The voices that have opposed opening up the RECPTA donations to benefit more kids have said that those schools need to start their own ‘early childhood PTAs’ — effectively saying, take care of your own kids, we’re taking care of ours,” Shearer wrote. 

The push for more ECPTAs is “not about the money,” Tawil says. “They’re so focused on taking over Rosemont’s ECPTA, they’re missing a great opportunity.” 

What RECPTA provides to Rosemont is “the branding, the marketing and the individualized attention to our school — as every school should have,” Tawil says. Every year until this one, she adds, Rosemont was featured on RECPTA auction party invitations. 

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“We’re losing focus, and that focus is what actually helps a school and a community,” Tawil says. “Until you get the school’s community involved in the school, you’re not going to achieve what Rosemont achieves. It’s just writing a check.” 

The prospect of creating other early childhood PTAs is “risky,” says Jenifer Parker, the board’s vice president of communications. She worries it would further divide the neighborhood, and would cannibalize sponsors and volunteers.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I’m having a playgroup. Oh, do you live on that side of 12th? You can’t come,’ ” Cannon says.

The other challenge is that most of the 22 schools RECPTA reached out to don’t have PTAs, Cannon says, “so the idea of asking them to create ECPTAs is kind of crazy.”

The board is “not caving to pressure, and we’re not listening to half-truths,” Parker says. After the Founder’s Day debacle and a subsequent town hall that proved hostile, the board hired security to be present at the May 17 end-of-year meeting. Members will vote on each and every request for funds. Ballots will be passed out so that people don’t have to raise their hands in fear of being shamed, Cannon says. 

This is a conflict about the role of RECPTA, Parker says. She doesn’t believe that impassioned alumnae truly don’t want to help other schools, but Parker, though she is a Rosemont parent, believes the board’s first priority is to listen to its members, many of whom are calling for change. Their votes, not the board’s or alumnae’s wishes, will determine RECPTA’s direction, she says.

“It’s hard for people to let go,” Parker says. “It’s the age-old thing of, change is hard.”

“They really love saying, ‘Change is hard,’ ” Tawil says, and she agrees: “I think it’s easier for them to commandeer a 92-year-old organization than to put the work into starting an ECPTA that supports the school of their choice. Instead of just taking over an organization, why don’t you use it as a model?”

Editor’s note: The original version of this story didn’t clarify that membership had voted to approve the RECPTA board’s budget or that the 22 schools are located in Dallas ISD’s District 7.  It also mistakenly identified Jenifer Parker as RECPTA’s community liaison and gave the end-of-year meeting date as May 8.

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