Academy Alumni Conflict Leads to Litigation in Takoma Park, Maryland
by Adventist Today News Team
Update appended April 29.
This coming weekend is alumni homecoming at Takoma Academy, the Adventist secondary school in the suburbs of Washington, DC. In fact, it appears that there will be two dueling events this weekend, although Adventist Today has not been able to confirm both locations. It is unlikely that both will be on campus because the Potomac Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which sponsors the school, has sued one of the groups in Federal court.
The complaint filed April 16 by the Potomac Conference against Takoma Academy Alumni Association, Inc. (TAAAI) and Henry Pittman, alumni president, alleges trademark infringement, unfair competition and unlawful possession of information, in a civil action. Pittman was elected president of the alumni association at the 2011 alumni weekend. The complaint states that he did not hold alumni elections at the weekend in April 2012, as has been the practice for many years. During that month, together with several other alumni, he filed incorporation papers with the Maryland state authorities.
Potomac Conference argues, in the complaint and in a news release, that the group of alumni leaders had no authorization to incorporate the association. Since it was started in the 1970s by former principal and local legend, J. P. “Prof” Laurence, the association has simply been an activity of the academy, with the alumni list and all funds held by the school administration. The board of the alumni group was made up half and half of representatives elected by the alumni and representatives appointed by the academy administration, while the new corporation bylaws reduce the number of board members and include only one representative of the academy, according to Potomac Conference.
In June last year Potomac Conference voted to disassociate itself from TAAAI and in January of this year, after other exchanges, the conference sent a cease and desist letter to Pittman and TAAAI, according to the complaint. TAAAI responded by filing an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to own the name “Takoma Academy Alumni Association,” according to the complaint.
In addition to removing control of the alumni activities from the school and the conference, a fact sheet from Potomac Conference describes two other concerns. The new TAAAI bylaws define members of the alumni association as “dues-paying” individuals, potentially excluding many alums, and that it is legally described as a “mutual benefit society,” which means that funds raised might be used to help alumni as well as the school. Adventist Today has not been able to determine if this “mutual benefit” language is included in the TAAAI documents because of an intention to give grants to individual alumni or to cover the fact that some of the funds will go to meals, entertainment and other activities that benefit the participating members during an alumni weekend, etc.
“For the past 12 months we have earnestly negotiated with members of the Takoma Academy Board of Trustees, the leadership of the Potomac Conference, and other officials,” the officers of TAAAI stated in a letter to alumni dated April 19, 2013. “After five months of negotiations, we proposed a Memorandum of Agreement as a mechanism to … address the specific concerns raised by the Conference. However, at the Nov. 5, 2012, … meeting, the Takoma Academy Board rejected [it].”
“Our incoming alumni president, Cathy Mills, had been in discussions with the conference to meet and … resolve the conflict [while] unbeknownst to us, lawyers representing the Potomac Conference were preparing [the] lawsuit while we were speaking to the VP of Education. Indeed, a meeting is scheduled for May 14th, 2013.” Adventist Today has not been able to get an answer from either TAAAI or Potomac Conference as to whether this meeting is still planned.
“The allegations, outlined in the lawsuit, are misleading and the decision to sue Henry Pittman personally when, by their own admission, he was acting in his official capacity as president, is legally without merit and appears merely to be an intimidation tactic. Most troubling is that the Takoma Academy Board of Trustees would initiate legal action against the Alumni Association that has given over $20,000 in the past 12 months to allow students to graduate, sponsored a Senior breakfast for new alumni members, and provided volunteers to clean the school.”
In the past, alumni donations were deposited with the school’s finance office and receipts were issued by the school. The conflict creates confusion for alumni donors and is likely to reduce fund-raising results, a veteran development professional told Adventist Today. “This is not the kind of publicity that you want with your alumni. It could cost the school lots of money over many years.”
The issue of control is more and more often raised in Adventist organizations. This has become more and more common with the ease of communication afforded by contemporary electronic media and with the independent attitudes of the Baby Boomers and later generations in North America. In fact, one of the key issues raised in the litigation filed by Potomac Conference is possession of the database of alumni Email addresses and phone numbers.
“Most people do not realize this,” a retired denominational administrator told Adventist Today, pointing to a statement on page 3 of the complaint filed in Federal court: “Potomac Conference … owns … churches and schools.” This is the legal status of local churches and most schools in the Adventist denomination and has led to increasing numbers of conflicts related to the creation of affiliated and independent corporations for various church functions. “The key problem for church leaders is how do you motivate a sense of ownership on the part of members when, in fact, they have no real ownership?”
“If volunteers have to be sued to get them to do what the conference wants, how does that affect the larger picture of volunteerism in the church?” stated another veteran denominational employee asked to comment on this story. “Does it lead to a kind of passive-aggressive psychology among volunteers in local churches and schools? There are signs of declining volunteerism in most church programs at the same time that there is an increase in independent initiatives. There are very few people among the decision-makers who have any training in the management of volunteers.”
On Monday morning, April 29, Celeste Ryan Blyden, communication director for the Columbia Union Conference, told Adventist Today that she was responding to inquiries on behalf of Keith Hallam, vice president for education for the Potomac Conference. She stated that meeting scheduled for May 14 between Cathy Mills, the new president of TAAAI, and the academy or conference adminsitration is still planned to take place.
Blyden also provided to Adventist Today a statement from Ron Mills, the TA staff member in charge of alumni activities and fund raising. Adventist Today asked, "In what ways does the Potomac Conference and Takoma Academy empower TA alumni to have ownership of the school and get involved with the school?" Mills response stated, in part, "We have reengaged the alumni through membership on the Foundation Committee, which has six members, three of whom are alums, and is tasked with helping to raise funds for Takoma Academy. … There is a monthly Alumni Speakers Series where we have a TA alum speak to the students during chapel on how TA helped shape their life. … Several TA alums serve on the board of Takoma Academy. And TA alums organized the 2013 Alumni Basketball Tournament which completed the activities for Alumni Weekend."
Mills stated that the alumni weekend organized by the school "was well attended [and] the gym was full for Sabbath's worship service with Class of 1968 alum [including] General Conference President Ted Wilson, whose class gave him a standing ovation. Many people said this was the largest turnout they've seen in recent times."
Adventist Today has been unable to find out about attendance at the other alumni weekend organized by TAAAI. AT has also had no reports on the two golf tournaments that were scheduled at the same time.