Calvert County's parent-teacher associations held a countywide general membership meeting last week -- the first anyone can remember -- to deal with an issue so divisive that leaders feared it was causing permanent rifts among members: food.
And it was not just any food, but the kind of junk food children love and nutritionists fear: pizza, Little Debbies, soft drinks and Ho Hos.
The debate over junk food resurfaced this fall in Calvert after public school officials drafted a nutrition policy, which federal law requires them to do.
Generally, the draft policy would ban the sale of junk food at school buildings and activities. Among its more controversial provisions is one that would bar selling items such as chocolates and brownies to raise funds for school organizations. Another proposed rule would limit the types of food that could be served at celebrations such as birthdays and Halloween.
When word of the draft reached the county's Council of PTAs, its members were eager to have a say. Students have protested the proposed ban on sweets in fundraising, and parents have defended the longtime practice of celebrating their children's birthdays by sending cupcakes for everyone in class.
It quickly became clear once the PTA council began its discussions that no one could agree on what the policy should say.
After much impassioned debate, the PTA council endorsed some proposed additions to the policy, which angered PTA members at individual schools, who said the council spoke without consulting them.
And so on Monday, after weeks of e-mails, debates and complaints, PTA leaders from across the county gathered at Calvert High School to vent their frustrations with the process and try to prevent further discord.
"We needed to see what we could do to get people back into the fold," said Rose C. Crunkleton, president of the county's Council of PTAs. "The whole point of being in the PTA is strength in numbers. Without that, we're nothing."
Crunkleton called in a parliamentary trainer from the D.C.-based National PTA to help conduct the meeting.
"We wanted to make it as fair as possible because we knew it would be a contentious meeting," she said. "I was fumbling a lot with the procedures, but she set us straight."
County PTA council members began the meeting by apologizing to local units. Then they voted to rescind their endorsements of policy proposals.
"I think the council trying to put through the policy without local input was wrong," said Michelle Wolf, one of the vice presidents on the county PTA council. "But the council will learn from that and will work better with local PTAs."
Most of the proposals originally endorsed by the PTA council would have made the draft nutrition policy stricter.
For example, the PTA council's proposals included banning sales of sports drinks such as Powerade during the school day. Another PTA proposal would have set limits on each snack food's content of fat, sugars and sodium down to the milligram.
Some parents, including David C. Cole, a PTA member for Huntingtown Elementary School, thought the proposals went too far.
"When we started talking about the percentage of calcium [in] fortified orange juices, I just thought we were doing too much," he said.
The PTA members at Monday's meeting voted to pursue three additions to the draft policy. If those items are also endorsed by a majority of the PTAs at individual schools, they will be submitted to the Calvert County Board of Education.
The three items to emerge from last week's meeting are:
* Including a PTA representative on the school health council created by the new nutrition policy.
* Requiring a qualified nutrition professional to oversee the school meals programs.
* Requiring a reassessment of the policy every three years.
Several members at Monday's meeting said the three ideas they endorsed provide the organization a chance to move forward with a united front.
"We had more than 50 people come out to the meeting," Wolf said. "We've never seen that many before. That in itself is encouraging because all that's happened in the end, I think, has really energized the local PTAs."
The nutrition policy will go before the Calvert school board Dec. 8, with a public comment period of 30 days after that.
PTA council leaders said they would consult their local units about the three suggestions and finalize their stance at a second special meeting in early January.