Orange County

PTA Thrift Shop in Chapel Hill, Carrboro to change its name, refocus its mission

The PTA Thrift Shop will adopt a new name and identity this fall focused on partnerships that work to close racial and economic opportunity gaps for local students and families.

The decision does not end the nonprofit’s support of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools PTAs, thrift shop officials said, but it will help clarify that relationship and the shop’s growing support for other youth-focused organizations.

The PTA Thrift Shop, established in 1952 to raise money for local schools, will become CommunityWorx, according to a news release. Its new name and slogan — Youth. Opportunity. Equity. — will be officially unveiled Nov. 15 at the Carrboro store in a public ceremony.

Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, announced the news Thursday morning at the chamber’s 2019 State of the Community Report at UNC’s Friday Center. PTA Thrift Shop board member Joel Levy spoke briefly about the change.

“I am extremely excited about this new brand,” Levy said. “Our mission has not changed. The brand supports our mission, and it gives us the opportunity to close the gaps for students and families in our community.”

The name change, part of a recent agreement with the National PTA, “closes a chapter that began with an evaluation of its business model and an organizational sustainability plan in 2010,” officials said in a news release.

“The [2007-09] recession was a wakeup call,” CommunityWorx President and CEO Barbara Jessie-Black said in the release. “We were lucky to make it through. It was clear that our dependency on the retail revenue alone would be problematic if ever there were another economic downturn.”

Community issues, solutions

The new name does not mean the thrift shop is leaving behind its 67-year relationship with the local PTAs, said Erik Valera, associate director. The PTAs still will be eligible for a portion of the nonprofit’s revenues, in addition to Project Impact grants, he said.

But the mission continues to bring in new partners to address what Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Pam Baldwin called a community issue, he said.

“The name is focused on engaging our partners, and I think at one time that partner was exclusively the PTAs, and now it’s really much broader than that, but it’s still inclusive of them,” Valera said.

Baldwin said there are many reasons why the resource-rich Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools district still sees student achievement gaps. In part, she said, it’s the need for pre-K resources, new strategies and the lingering effects of racism, school integration and implicit bias.

The solution to a successful future for all students and the community, she said, will be found in doing something different.

“If we look at the achievement gap, and the work of our students and our students who are struggling, those students belong to all of us, every single one of us,” Baldwin said. “If there’s a housing issue or a health disparity or some employment issue, we see that in the publicly communicated data that we are held accountable for every single year.”

Challenging years

As the PTA Thrift Shop also looks for new ways to serve the community, its board is working, too, to bring balance back to its financial books. For several years, the thrift shop either has made a small profit or been slightly in the red, according to federal tax returns.

A 2013 tax return shows the PTA Thrift Shop sold $1.3 million in secondhand goods from July 2008 to June 2009. Earlier tax returns are not publicly available.

In 2010 and 2011, the thrift shop’s revenues climbed to $1.4 million before dipping to $1.1 million in 2012. Jessie-Black has noted that the Thrift Shop lost money that year in part because the Carrboro store closed to launch a $5.5 million building project.

In 2013, thrift shop revenues rebounded, tax documents show, reaching a high of $1.6 million in 2016. Then sales revenues fell again, to $1.4 million last year.

The decline initially was related to construction at the Carrboro store, Jessie-Black has said. After the Carrboro store reopened, the PTA store in Chapel Hill was hit by construction at the Berkshire apartments and then at Village Plaza that restricted customer access.

The thrift shop’s board has discussed “in depth how we can bring the revenue up,” Levy said, and make the nonprofit sustainable. He declined to provide details of those conversations.

“Honestly, this whole thing with the name was very distracting and set us back and probably cost us a whole lot of money, as did the construction at the Chapel Hill store,” Levy said. “It was very disruptive, and we hope to get back on track now.”

The name change is the culmination of a rift that widened since 2014 between the PTA Thrift Shop and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools PTA Council.

The thrift shop’s last big allocation to the 19 local PTAs — $265,000 — was in 2011. Only about $119,000 has been allocated since 2012, although the thrift shop created Project Impact grants in 2015, which provided another $39,655 to 13 schools over four years.

But most of the profits continue to pay a 20-year mortgage on the Carrboro store and YouthWorx on Main, which leases affordable rental space to nonprofits. In June 2018, the thrift shop still owed $4.6 million, with monthly payments of $26,000.

In 2018, after the PTA Council unsuccessfully sought to get more information about thrift shop finances and whether its mission had changed, the council demanded the thrift shop drop “PTA” from its name or set a timeline for increasing allocations.

The thrift shop also was criticized for changes to its bylaws and operations that reduced the longtime role of PTAs and parents.

Return on expansion slow

The construction of YouthWorx and its focus on helping other nonprofits also has been criticized. Jessie-Black has defended the center as another way to serve local students that could make more money for local PTAs in the long run.

The plan is to sustain YouthWorx with grants and funnel its revenues into thrift shop operations, Jessie-Black said in 2017 when YouthWorx opened. Leases were advertised last year at $200 to $400 a month.

A 2018 federal tax return — the first that includes YouthWorx — shows the PTA Thrift Shop reported $152,628 in rental income and $243,196 in rental expenses — a loss of roughly $90,000. The thrift shop also leases office space to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, which paid roughly $130,000 in rent the year before YouthWorx opened, tax returns show.

Meanwhile, local PTAs and parents have moved on, paying for school supplies and programs through donations, fees and fundraisers. It’s been hard, and they’ve had to be selective about what they do, some PTA leaders have said, adding more help is always needed.

Although the PTA Council and PTA Thrift Shop attempted mediation in 2018, that quickly fell apart when council representatives said they weren’t getting the detailed information they had been seeking.

The National PTA entered the conversation in March, negotiating in confidential talks with the PTA Thrift Shop to reach a deal. In July, the PTA Thrift Shop announced its name would change. Other “key terms” of the deal remain confidential.

It’s not been easy, but the nonprofit is moving forward, thrift shop officials said.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time, but I think we’re in a much better position to be in it for the long term in the meantime,” Valera said. “Maybe not in the short term, but in the long term.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.