- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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 PTA — with primary offices in Alexandria, Va., and Chicago — 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 15-page lawsuit names School Family Media Inc., the parent company of PTO Today, accusing it of trademark infringement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices, among other allegations.

Statements on PTO Today’s website, the lawsuit claims, suggest it is affiliated with the PTA and so “further continue to encourage members to leave” the PTA. It also says the president of PTO Today’s parent company, Tim Sullivan, has contacted PTA members “in an effort to induce them to leave” the PTA.

Mr. Sullivan, though, 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,” he 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 added.

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.

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

He says 90 percent of the company’s income is derived from sponsorships and advertising, including in its magazine; he declined to provide any financial details.

Wednesday’s lawsuit says that by hinting it has a relationship with the PTA, the PTO Today helps secure 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,” Ms. 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.

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