PTA lawsuit claims rival aimed to steal members

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(AP) CHICAGO - The nonprofit PTA sued a for-profit rival Wednesday, accusing it of denigrating the established group in a bid to siphon off members.

The National Parent Teacher Association, an iconic group that's been part of America's cultural backdrop for more than a century but whose membership is in decline, filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

The Chicago-based PTA boasted 12 million members during its heyday in the '60s but has seen its ranks dwindle to less than half that. PTO Today put itself on a collision course with the PTA by setting itself up as an alternative.

The lawsuit also names School Family Media Inc., the parent company of PTO Today. It claims trademark infringement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices and other allegations.

PTO founder and chief executive Tim Sullivan said his group is not to blame for PTA's woes.

"Their membership started to drop years before our company was in existence, so we are not the cause of their membership dropping," Sullivan said, adding that a call from an Associated Press reporter Wednesday morning was the first he heard of the lawsuit.

"I don't know a single thing we are doing that is against law," he said.

The PTA, founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers, has a network of state and local affiliates; it touts its influence in the corridors of power and a collective national voice on key educational issues.

PTO Today, founded by Sullivan in 1999, offers such services as insurance, resource kits, training and advice to independent parent-teacher organizations.

The lawsuit accuses PTO Today of misleading the public by hinting it has a relationship with the PTA. That false claim, the lawsuit says, helps PTO Today land advertising contracts for its website and magazine.

In a statement released Wednesday PTA president Betsy Landers accused PTO Today's parent company of "disparaging PTA to drive business their way."

The PTA says it filed the lawsuit when it was unable to resolve disputes outside of court.

"PTA had no choice but to take legal action to protect its respected name and reputation," Landers said.

The drop in PTA membership is partly due to more single parents and working mothers who can't find spare time to devote to school functions. Some parents have also complained about part of their PTA dues going to the association's state and national arms instead of local affiliates.

PTO Today estimates that more than 85 percent of the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools have some sort of parent-teacher group. About 25,000 have PTA affiliates.

On the PTO Today website, Sullivan praises the PTA for providing support that led to lunch and inoculation programs in schools across the country. But he also suggests it occasionally strays into politics - including, he says, by opposing school vouchers. That's one reason, he claims, some parent groups broke away.

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