What is Bythwood Uniforms & Sports Group, and why does it matter to the Prince George's County PTA?
Last week, The Post reported that leaders of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs held two competing meetings. County PTA President Darren Brown held one meeting at Largo High School on Sept. 27 with interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett and two school board members. Meanwhile, county PTA First Vice President Walter Searcy and others on the parent-teacher association's countywide executive board held another meeting at Robert R. Gray Elementary School to discuss ousting Brown.
Searcy afterward gave few specific reasons for the anti-Brown gathering at the elementary school on Addison Road near the District line, which was monitored by state PTA officials. He said the executive board would act soon in response to complaints about Brown's leadership. Brown and Searcy won their posts last May in an internal PTA election.
After The Post's report, the principal of Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale offered a clue to the somewhat mysterious dispute. Helena Nobles-Jones described her concerns about apparent foul-ups in the ordering and delivery of student uniforms over a several-week period before the school year began in August. Brown, who at the time was also president of the Flowers parent-teacher-student association, was deeply involved in that process.
Delays in uniform delivery frustrated many parents the weekend before school began, according to Nobles-Jones and Brown. Ultimately the school was forced to postpone its new mandatory uniform policy until the problems were ironed out. (By mid-September, the policy was in effect and students were wearing their white shirts and gray slacks or skirts.) Nobles-Jones said she asked Brown in August to put her in touch with a company known as Bythwood Uniforms & Sports Group. That company had been advertised last spring as the school's uniform provider, a choice made by parent leaders, not the school or the school system. Parents had paid the company for their orders.
But the actual provider turned out to be a brand known as the Neil Roberts School Uniform Co. Brown told The Post that Bythwood was simply a go-between, helping with clothing measurements and other matters. Brown said Bythwood made no money in the deal, and he showed copies of nearly $300,000 in checks given to Neil Roberts as payment.
Neil Roberts is an established school uniform brand. But Nobles-Jones said she could find no trace of Bythwood at the time of her inquiries. The company listed an address on Campus Way South in Upper Marlboro and a phone number in the 301 area code. But its owners or representatives were impossible to track down, she said, either through the Web, the Maryland state government or business registries.
"I wanted to meet with the representatives of Bythwood to protect my parents. I couldn't find any information," Nobles-Jones said. "I did everything humanly possible to be able to provide answers."
On Aug. 29, according to state records, Bythwood registered with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. Its owner was listed as Duane Brown of Middletown, Ohio. Darren Brown said Duane is his brother.
Nobles-Jones said she believed Bythwood was at least partly responsible for the uniform delays. She did not fault Darren Brown, and nobody has accused him publicly of any wrongdoing in the matter. In September, however, Darren Brown resigned his position as Flowers PTSA president.
Calls to Bythwood's Maryland phone number were not immediately returned, and Duane Brown could not be located in Ohio. Darren Brown said Monday his brother was not available for comment, and he reiterated his intention to remain county PTA president despite the efforts of Searcy and others. County PTA officers can be removed by a two-thirds majority vote of the executive board, which now has about 10 members and a few vacancies.
"If they vote me out, they vote me out," Darren Brown said. "I can't worry about that. It's easy to quit. But I'm not a quitter."
The county PTA presidency matters for at least a few reasons. The incumbent could be a player in the choice of a new schools chief, in upcoming school board elections or other matters of school system politics and policy. The office is also a rallying point to get parents more involved in public schools.
One PTA officer quit months ago rather than work with Brown. Faith Pounds, who had been secretary of the PTA council for two years, said she was uncomfortable with Brown's leadership style. Brown dismissed her complaint as "personality stuff" and said he had "nothing against her." The county PTA Web site, which Pounds had run, lapsed and as of Monday was still down.
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda and Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.