Our principal seems to be resistant to almost all parent feedback. She’s hard to reach by phone, impossible to schedule meetings with, and doesn’t respond consistently to emails. I’ve been trying to set up a meeting to discuss ideas for next year, and I was basically told to go away. What should I do?

The phrase “you can collect more bees with honey than with vinegar” comes to mind here. A note that reflects your sincere willingness to work together for the benefit of the children will go a long way. You might begin this journey with a sentence or two of appreciation for something you’ve seen her say or do—a sincere comment about a positive action. Bringing a bouquet of flowers, a box of candy, or a little basket of apples to the secretary sets the tone that you care and that you want a positive relationship with the front office staff, as well. Reflecting care and concern really helps in building rapport and mutual support for the main focus of the school community—the children.

Can the principal prevent us from forming an independent PTO with bylaws and setting up a bank account (and tax-free status)?

From a practical and pragmatic perspective, a group of parents can establish an organization independent of the school and the administration. Parents have the right to form a volunteer group with their own bank account that is not a part of the school.

Whether or not the group is independent, the best situation occurs when parents, administration, and teachers all work together for the benefit of the school and the children. If one of these three entities takes a position of opposition, it is not good for the students.

Since your principal objects, I would encourage you to start by meeting with your school district’s finance director or superintendent to clarify any tax and financial contribution requirements and/or legal implications or restrictions. They may even vary from one district to another.

Next, it is important to set a meeting time with the principal (45 to 60 minutes) to explain the rationale of the developing parent group. It would be best if the officers, especially the president and treasurer, could meet together with the principal. Be sure that you articulate your mission and goals for establishing this group and why it is important for the children and the community, and share any concerns or legal implications that came out of your meeting with the district financial director.

Every school principal knows that building strong parent-teacher-community relationships helps students be more successful and helps the school be more effective. The principal needs to hear that your purpose is to help the students be more successful. Make the meeting as professional and positive as possible, and try to leave the meeting on a positive note. Let the principal know that you understand her perspec­tive; however, the parents in the PTO believe in their mission for students and that is why you are establishing an independent group. You may even leave a copy of the PTO’s bylaws or let her know you would be glad to forward a copy once the group is formed. Emphasize that a separate PTO independent of the school does not mean either the parents or the school are not willing to work together for the benefit of the children.

Does the principal have any say in who serves on the PTO board?

The election of PTO board members is an important event in the PTO year and should be clearly established in the bylaws. The school principal should be aware of the bylaws, and the election process should be reviewed prior to the election to keep everyone up to speed on the required steps. The election and voting should be fair and open and allow for an unbiased opportunity to nominate prospective board members. All candidates should have information about the responsibilities of their prospective board position prior to running for office. A fair and open election is part of the democratic process.

Since the principal is the individual responsible for all groups affiliated with the school, the good news is that your principal is concerned about potential PTO leadership. Show the principal that you appreciate his interest and that you are prepared to inform candidates of their responsibilities and to follow existing PTO bylaws to ensure an equitable process. Again, open and ongoing communication prevents misunderstandings.

Can the principal cancel a PTO event without consulting the PTO board?

It would not reflect collaborative team spirit for a principal to randomly cancel a PTO event without any communication with the PTO board. First, get the facts about this decision directly from the principal—an emergency meeting is critical. Once you have the facts about the situation, you can take the necessary steps to reschedule, explain to the school community, or retain the existing time frame. Make sure a strong relationship and good communication is in place throughout the year—when this is established, such random and unclear actions are not likely to occur.

We just had a fundraiser and the principal wants half the profits to be split evenly between teachers to use in classrooms. I know they can use the money, but I don’t like being told how to spend PTO funds. What should we do?

This is an excellent question and not an uncommon occurrence at the school level as funds are reduced and expenditures are limited. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Be sure that the intended use of any PTO funding is established prior to the beginning of the school year and the initiation of any fundraisers. The planned allocation of funds should be in writing and understood in the PTO’s action plan for the year. If it is feasible to have some funds available for extraneous expenditures during the school year, both the teachers and the principal will appreciate it. Receipts and a form that indicates how the money will be used for students should also be part of the protocol.

The principal should never breech the generous spirit of a PTO by “telling” the board how the newly acquired funds from an event should be spent. If there are extenuating circumstances, the principal should approach the board with a “special request” and not make financial demands. This is why open communication and a positive, collegial relationship between the PTO and the school principal are so important.

Our school is getting a new principal this year. I assume that the new person will have new ideas and different goals and may want to do things differently than in the past. Do you have any recommendations for how to help promote a smooth transition, as far as the PTO is concerned?

Comfort and safety is always about what is known and familiar to us. Transitions always promote some degree of anxiety—for both the school community and the new principal on board—and can be scary. This uncertainty is very normal and even healthy because it opens a door and paves a path for new opportunities that can make a school even better!

The best scenario would be to have lots of introductory time prior to the beginning of the new school year when the incoming principal will take over. Hopefully, the new leader has met teachers, students, and parents before the close of the previous school year, has set up a meeting with the PTO president and board, and has established the basis for mutual collaboration to support student success. However, there are many unexpected situations that may prevent this from happening. Personnel changes, people leaving for other positions, relocations, and even illness can cause sudden leadership changes at the building level, resulting in a relatively unknown person in the position of leading the school.

In any case, the principal, teachers, and parents all have a responsibility to build and support a positive school climate. A school that provides a successful learning environment cannot effectively function without this strong partnership. The question you pose suggests that you are aware of this core value in the school community and are eager to “promote a smooth transition” from the PTO/parent community’s side. There are a few basic considerations to help establish that solid foundation upon which to build a strong and harmonious school year. They include the following:

  1. The heart of your new principal will be touched with a pleasant welcome note accompanied by a small bag of “goodies” (T-shirt, school/PTO memorabilia) to say “we are glad you have joined our school family.”

  2. In the note, ask when would be a convenient time (over the next week) for you both to meet. Would the new principal like you to set up the appointment with the school secretary?

  3. We all embark upon new relationships with our personal expectations and preconceived notions. However, try to enter this partnership without assumptions. Be open to learning about the new principal. Try to find out as much as possible about the principal’s background and experience to give you the facts about the new principal’s preparedness to lead your school. Equally important is your openness to learn about the person in this role and to show your new leader that you are interested in working together as a team.

  4. When you do establish a meeting time, be on time and come prepared with questions as well as information about the PTO.

    1. What does the principal think of the school’s mission, vision, goals, programs?
    2. What are the principal’s expectations of the PTO?
    3. What are the principal’s goals for the success of students and the school?
    4. Bring photos of past events and activities—a picture is often worth a thousand words!

Trish Dolasinski holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master’s degree in special education. In addition to her 16 years as a school principal, she has served as a classroom teacher and also a PTO president.