Trash Bashes and Disco Nights: The Underbelly of PTA Auctions

hires1What would you do if an invitation arrived in the mail for a “White Trash Tea Party?” Laugh? Guffaw? Recoil in horror? Call the press?

Would you react differently if it showed up in your email inbox? Or was posted on Facebook? How would you feel if the sender told you she lived paycheck-to-paycheck and claimed, “four matching hubcaps would make my day”? What if … it was part of a fundraiser for your elementary school auction?

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present exhibit A:

We’re not in the 98199 anymore! Here's your chance to experience the "other side of the tracks" at Blaine’s First Annual White Trash Tea! Grab your trashiest girlfriends to sample the finest in Crock Pot cuisine, Twinkie trifle, a variety of fun cocktails and, of course, teas. Everything will be served on plates from Safeway's "Bonus with Purchase" collection, natch. The tea will be hosted at the not-so-trashy [name of place redacted], located on Capitol Hill.
Cost: $40 per person
Limitations: Up to 14 people

This is from the Seattle public school Catharine Blaine K–8's school fundraiser auction catalog, which was leaked to the alternative weekly, The Stranger, a few weeks ago.

Also, in case you were wondering, Magnolia, the Seattle neighborhood where the Catherine Blaine school resides, actually is on the other side of the tracks. The nice side.

Now, this being Seattle, land of the latte-fueled, high-as-the-Space Needle-minded parents who have been known to occasionally get their organic cotton underwear in a bunch, you can imagine what happened next. The item was quickly removed from the auction catalog, just as the online firestorm began. And oh, it was a mighty fire.

There’s no point in ripping anyone a new one when the wounds of this fiasco are still fresh and raw, so let’s take a quick step back and look at the state of Seattle Public Schools, the real reason why this auction item was written up in the first place.

Our schools are woefully underfunded. State budget shortfalls occur year after year, and PTA budgets are expected to fill the gap, especially at those public schools that are located in more affluent areas of Seattle, such as Magnolia, Queen Anne and Northeast Seattle. It’s a bit of a Peter-to-Paul system that seems — right or wrong — to be working, at least for now.

The money raised at these school auctions goes toward funding core school functions: libraries, tutors, music and art education, school supplies, nurse hours and teacher salaries. Parents whose children attend public schools in the more affluent areas also must pay for full-day kindergarten if they don’t qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

One wonders if there is an easier way to close the gap — and there is: HEY VOTERS, PLEASE FUND OUR SCHOOLS!

The fact that we are reduced to such a dysfunctional system is disheartening for those of us who care about public education.

Now. I have a snarky aside about auctions and gala fundraisers in general: I think they’re inherently kinda weird. Maybe it’s just me, but I always find it a little off-putting when I’m asked to attend an event (for a cause I most always support) and find myself doused with free alcohol and a plateful of rich food, followed by an urgent and very public request to fork over large sums of money, ostensibly to show off how much I care about the cause/how wealthy I am.

It leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  Like we’re trying to get from a simple point A to point B, but first have to jaunt off to a week in Maui, dine with a local celebrity or sign up for an expensive golf clinic before we can take even one step forward.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we could all just give generously to worthy organizations without the fuss? We can … but most often we don’t. The dress-up party, the booze, the peer pressure, the bragging rights the next day when you get to say, “Oh, I’m so hung over and we spent too much money… but it’s for a good cause … ” kind of satisfies some sort of quintessentially American, middle-upper-class itch in a twisted sort of way.

There’s a psychology there that works. Face it: Auctions exist for one reason and one reason only: They’re a terrific way to get people to part with their money.

Back to the Seattle School District. My kids attend public school, and I do support our PTA auction. For as long as I’ve been going, I’ve noticed that it’s the theme parties that steal the show. Funny, silly, outrageous — they’re an easy way to procure an item (much simpler than getting someone to cough up their yacht or ski condo, I assume).

This year, I was asked to write some live auction items. I was a tad surprised to see that a “Honey Boo Boo Trash Bash” was this year’s theme at our own school (it has since been changed) but I won’t lie: I certainly had fun writing it. (“Who is your alter ego? Chubbs, Chickadee, Mama or Sugar Bear?” Time to eat some ‘sketti!”)

Sure, I considered the potential backlash, but didn’t say anything, mostly because the show is a major hit, and besides, Honey Boo Boo reminds me of my own childhood.

Perhaps more importantly: I knew the event, if successful, would help raise thousands of dollars for our school.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of the whole “White Trash Bash Tea Party” debacle. Obviously the members of the Blaine PTA didn’t think this one all the way through, and the reaction was predictable. We’re in 21st century after all, and part of the social contract we make with each other is that we don’t go out of our way to make fun of the poor when soliciting money from the more affluent. Especially when it comes to funding things as basic as our children’s elementary schools.

Yet at the same time, I feel for them.  Raising hundreds of thousands of dollars with nothing more than a SWAT team of parent volunteers is no easy task, especially when infighting and accusations are being thrown around. They made a mistake — and quickly owned up to it — which takes far more courage than sitting back and throwing sticks at an already raging firestorm. Was this a misstep? Yes. Could the whole thing have been handled differently? Absolutely.

What’s your take — which side of the tracks are you siding with? Do you love school funding auctions or hate 'em? As for me, I think I’m going to get out the Crock Pot and let my thoughts simmer on this one a little longer.

107Allison Ellis is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at AllisonEllis.

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