Education

Coca-Cola Lobbyist Leaves PTA Board

By Rhea R. Borja — October 19, 2004 1 min read
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Critics of commercialism in schools are calling the resignation of a senior Coca-Cola Co. executive from the National PTA’s board of directors a step in the right direction.

The Chicago-based association—which has 6.5 million members, who are mostly parents and educators—has been the target of criticism for its partnership with Coca-Cola.

John H. Downs Sr.—the senior vice president of public affairs and the chief lobbyist for the Atlanta-based beverage giant—quietly resigned in May, more than a year before his two-year term was set to expire in June 2005, said Laura Battle, a PTA spokeswoman.

Mr. Downs sent a resignation letter to PTA President Linda Hodge saying that “increased responsibilities precluded him from serving his full two-year term,” said Laura Asman, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., the marketing, production, and distribution arm of Coca-Cola.

His PTA board tenure had sparked sharp criticism from some parents, educators and anti-commercialism activists. They said it was a conflict of interest for an organization that prides its role as an advocate for children’s education and health to have on its board the chief lobbyist of a company that markets sugary drinks to children, especially in an era of rising concern about childhood obesity.

“The alliance between Coke and the PTA was a tremendous black eye for both organizations,” said Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.- based watchdog group, which learned this month of Mr. Downs’ resignation. “There was a lot of media attention, so they cut their losses.”

But Ms. Asman denied that such criticism was a factor in Mr. Downs’ departure.

“He just wasn’t able to fulfill his obligations,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Though Mr. Downs has stepped down, Coca-Cola remains a sponsor of a National PTA program to improve parent involvement in schools.

About 4 percent of the PTA’s $12 million annual budget comes from corporate sponsorships.

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