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PTA's super mom quits after 20 years

County president Denise Gill often rattled the education scene on many issues. Her voice helped alter policy and even construction.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Denise Gill is leaving the PTA after 20 years.
Denise Gill has helped change the course of school construction projects, had a voice in choosing two superintendents, and mobilized the troops on issues ranging from corporal punishment to school dress codes.

All as a PTA mom.

But 20 years after she got sucked into the PTA wars, Gill is about to watch her last child leave the nest. And with that, she ends an extraordinary tenure with the Parent-Teacher Association that spanned the administrations of five school superintendents.

Gill, 45, will step down Monday night as president of the Hernando County PTA, a position she has held more times than she can remember. (A friend counted 11 times.)

Aside from her county PTA service, Gill was at various times president of the PTAs at Spring Hill Elementary, J.D. Floyd Elementary, Powell Middle School and Springstead High.

On a few occasions, she served simultaneously as president of the county PTA and two of the local school PTAs. "It was not something I set out to do," Gill said Friday. "It just happened."

Gill says her prominence in an organization where volunteers are precious had as much to do with her availability as anything else.

"I had the most flexible schedule," she said.

Her start in the PTA began innocently enough.

Gill was a mere "room mom" for her daughter's kindergarten class at Spring Hill Elementary when someone asked her to help organize the Spring Fling luncheon. That was 1981.

Within a couple of years, she was asked to take a leadership role. Her first baptism by fire came when the school district proposed to open a school of portable classrooms. They wanted to place it at the site of what is now J.D. Floyd Elementary.

Gill was afraid her daughter, at a crowded Spring Hill Elementary at the time, might be rezoned to the portable school -- a concept that she couldn't fathom in a state where tropical storms blow through on a regular basis.

She and other PTA moms began a petition drive. They even took their campaign to a local circus, where they got numerous signatures in favor of stopping the portable school.

Gill said the superintendent at the time, Ken Austin, was furious with her. But the effort led the School Board to halt plans for the portable school. Within a couple of years, a permanent structure became the J.D. Floyd Elementary that we know today.

That episode convinced Gill that parents could make a difference in the schools and she got the fever for being involved.

"I got sucked in because I wound up being angry," she said.

In the years that followed, she led campaigns to stop corporal punishment, to enable elementary school children to wear shorts as a remedy to long, hot bus rides, and to push for new school construction.

Moreover, Gill says she witnessed a transformation in how the district office treated parents. Where parents' viewpoints were once ignored, today they often are sought out.

During her tenure, Gill has been asked to serve on district committees that redrew attendance lines, reformed discipline policies, and reshaped the curriculum.

She was twice a member of committees that selected superintendent finalists. And she has had a similar role in the selection of principals and assistant principals.

Frequently, she was called upon by news reporters to provide a parent's perspectives on issues. And, from time to time, she penned her own letters to the editor.

During the most pitched battles, she has willingly stepped up to the public microphone at School Board meetings to chime in on the issue at hand.

"It's always been a standing joke among board members -- she's back again," said School Board chairman John Druzbick, who met Gill when he became president of the Pine Grove Elementary PTA. "She has been a real strong supporter of children's rights and a child advocate. The district will truly miss her for all the stuff she does."

PTA groups exist at 11 of the county's 17 schools. Membership numbers weren't available Friday. But Gill said membership has declined in the past few years, part of a cyclical turn it seems to take depending on whether there are any hot-button issues up for debate in the county.

To a certain degree, even Gill admits that PTAs have been supplanted in recent years by School Advisory Councils, or SACs. State law requires that SACs, which involve parents, teachers, administrators and community members, be established at every school.

And unlike PTAs, which raise all their own funds, SACs are given money by the state to use as they see fit. Still, the PTAs help raise money for school projects and volunteer in classrooms. Above all, Gill said, its mission is to help children.

Gill, who is the owner and administrator of Bright Beginnings Preschool, said balancing the demands of PTA with her job and her family was a challenge made possible only by the understanding of her family.

Barbara Renczkowski, vice president of the county PTA, has spent the last year being groomed by Gill to take over leadership of the organization. She has seven years experience in the PTA -- a healthy run, but one that pales in comparison to Gill's two decades.

"They are definitely big shoes to fill," said Renczkowski, who works as a production assistant for the school district's cable access station, HITV.

Gill says she expects she will miss being involved and she has promised Renczkowski that she will answer questions and provide other assistance if asked. Otherwise, her business, her family and a grandbaby due in August will have to keep her busy.

She won't even rule out a running in the future for the School Board, a suggestion made frequently to her by friends in the past. Of course, if her experience with the PTA is any indication, making herself available is half the battle.

"I will never say never," Gill said. "But I think it's unlikely."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127 or by sending e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

PTA information

To get involved with the local PTA, parents can call their child's school or call the PTA hotline, 596-3999.

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