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Sonoma County’s first state PTA president aims to empower parents, students

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When he was a child, Dianna MacDonald’s middle son struggled with disorders that hindered his ability to hear and process visual information. When he was in third grade, she took at a state PTA conference a workshop on different learning plans, empowering her to do research and advocate for her son.

“PTA literally changed my whole life,” said MacDonald, 46, of Santa Rosa. “I was not willing to say this is good enough, and I’m really never willing to say that for kids.”

Her son is now a college student, and MacDonald is president of the California State PTA.

She is the first Sonoma County resident to lead the Sacramento-based child advocacy nonprofit, the largest state PTA organization in the country with 760,000 members. It oversees 3,500 local PTAs across California.

She took on the unpaid position in 2017, and will be finishing up her term this year.

For at least two weeks each month she travels across California, meeting with legislators, school administrators, board members, parents and students. Her organization helped define family engagement goals, set by the state through the Local Control and Accountability Plan that each school district develops as part of its overall vision for students.

“Authentic family engagement means they understand the system they’re apart of,” said MacDonald, who works at least 40 hours a week in her role as president, more if she’s traveling.

It’s a position she hadn’t envisioned herself in during the early years of parenting three sons, now ages 27, 22 and 21. But navigating school systems — especially as someone who overcame dyslexia — got the Santa Rosa native hooked on PTA.

“What I love about PTA is PTA empowers you so that you can go back and empower others,” she said.

MacDonald and her family spent 14  years living in Cloverdale before recently moving to the Skyhawk neighborhood in east Santa Rosa. She volunteered with her local PTA and the state PTA in various capacities over the years.

She also served on the Cloverdale school board from 2008 to 2016.

“I was sworn in that night, and then given a really terrible budget that just got worse,” she said about serving on the school board. “As bad as that budget was, I had an opportunity to learn.”

In 2010, when she was the board president, about 10 percent of the budget was cut. The state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team also supervised the board as finances improved, she said.

“Everything I was learning from state PTA about what we needed to do for kids, I was contradicting and having to make these horrific cuts,” she said.

Later that year, Measure G, a $17 million facilities bond, was passed, providing some relief for the district. It used the money to make some much needed repairs and upgrades to its aging schools.

After losing a bid for a third term in 2016, she felt the pull to move back to Santa Rosa, where her mother still lived. Her husband, Mike, owner of North Bay Commercial Services, Inc., an air-conditioning and heating business, also had most of his clients there.

Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools, first met MacDonald in 2006. He had served as the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association representative to the state PTA, where he saw her leadership skills first-hand.

“She is engaging, dynamic and articulate in providing leadership to this state organization. She has helped promote Sonoma County schools statewide,” Herrington said.

Abby Fellman, a Petaluma resident with five children in the Waugh School District, oversees PTA operations in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties and serves as a mentor and resources to local PTAs. She met MacDonald about two years ago.

Fellman said MacDonald draws from her experience as a parent, former Cloverdale board trustee and PTA mentor.

“I think of Dianna as being very direct and to the point, but still friendly. She is excellent at laying out the why,” Fellman said. “She’s a person I turn to when I have questions.”