Getting ready for a new school year can be exciting, but it also can be a little daunting for any parent group leader. Lots of possibilities lie ahead, and so do a lot of challenges. But a little planning and a flexible attitude can go a long way toward reducing stress and making the year a surefire success.

One of the best ways to ease the transition into a new year is to have the outgoing officers meet with the incoming crew to share information. “We hadn’t done that in the past, but this year eight of us sat down and reflected on the past year and what worked,” says Brenna Morse, PTO president at Ervin Carlisle Elementary in Delaware, Ohio. “It was an official transition. We wanted to ensure that everything goes smoothly.”

It also helps to have officers and committee chairs talk one-on-one with their predecessors, if possible. Encourage them to ask specific questions about resources, contacts, and other information to help them do their jobs.

A Time for Everything

Crafting the schedule for the academic year is often the first task tackled by parent group leaders, usually with input from the school principal. The scheduling process typically relies on the school calendar and the previous year’s PTO calendar. Then adjustments are made as needed. Where is the schedule too crowded? Where does it lag? For example, the PTO at Robert Frost Elementary in Sioux Fall, S.D., decided that its spring pizza bingo activity would work better in the fall, when parents weren’t as busy, so it was rescheduled before the new year began. Such shifting and nudging helps build the official PTO calendar.

Approaching scheduling in an organized way from the beginning will help you avoid headaches later on. Start by evaluating last year’s events and programs. What worked well and what didn’t? Talk to committee chairs to see whether significant changes are in order. Next, meet with the principal to discuss school priorities. Does she have any areas of focus that you should consider when developing your schedule? For example, maybe a goal this year will be to raise literacy scores. As a result, you might decide to change your bingo event to a Family Reading Night, or sponsor a readathon around Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

You might also survey parents to see what types of events and fundraisers they would support. And at the middle school level, survey the students. At Rosemont Ridge Middle School in West Linn, Ore., the PTO-sponsored dances drew little interest. But after surveying the kids, the group renamed the events “Fun Blasts” and added games and other activities for kids who weren’t interested in dancing. Attendance soared.

Even if you don’t create a formal survey, listen closely to what parents have to say. “At the beginning of the year, I was overwhelmed about how many parents, especially new parents, come to the PTA to ask questions about the school, after-school programs, day-care opportunities we might know about, where to park for certain things,” says Laura Schmorrow, PTA president at Cunningham Park Elementary in Vienna, Va. “It gave me great ideas of what to include on the website.”

Finally, it’s crucial to take into account your own resources. If you have only a handful of committed volunteers, running a big carnival and an auction might be too much to take on. But a gym night featuring active games and a product sales fundraiser might accomplish similar goals without burning out your best workers.

Income and Outgo

Tackling the budget can bring on a headache. There’s so much to consider all at once. And what if the estimates are way off? Still, creating a budget is crucial to making the year run smoothly.

The key is to remember that once you establish a budget, it’s not written in stone—think of it as a guide rather than a directive. It’s a route marked out for the year’s journey, but just like on a car trip, you may discover that you have to account for unforeseen events like traffic jams. In PTO terms, that might mean a fundraiser that doesn’t do very well or an increased student population that bumps up the cost of field trips. Remember that with a budget, you’re just making educated guesses, not trying to pick the winning lottery numbers.

If you’re concerned about not bringing in enough money for a big purchase, consider paying for things a little at a time. “We had a goal last year of purchasing a certain number of [iPod Touches] and cameras,” says Nicole Osmundson, PTO presi-dent at Robert Frost Elementary. “We did it in increments so we had enough cash on hand to make those purchases. If we didn’t meet the goals, we would still be OK. We just have to be wise and conservative about how we spend funds. We don’t make big promises we know we can’t keep until the expenses are paid for.”

The Malcom Bridge Middle School PTO in Bogart, Ga., took that approach a step further by not making a specific dollar commitment for a major purchase. “We like to be flexible in budgeting,” says PTO copresident Angela Whitehead. “This year we’re trying to buy computer carts. We’re committed to giving as much as we can but not a certain amount of money.” They also hold back about $2,500 each year for startup money, which eases pressure at the beginning of the next year.

Still, it’s best to start with a clear plan. “We used to sit around for hours [after a fundraiser] to decide what money would go for,” Osmundson says. “Now before the school year we know exactly what the money will go for. It’s more efficient timewise.”

Be prepared to accommodate unexpected expenses by having some wiggle room, which could mean carrying over money from the previous year, like at Malcom Bridge Middle School, or designating a suitable “miscellaneous” category in your budget. The PTO at Scholls Heights Elementary in Beaverton, Ore., pays for library books each year. “But one year we lost our librarian and no one ordered the books,” says PTO president Sara Gantman. “So we purchased the books late and had to double the budget for the following year to pay for books in the fall and again in the spring.” But because they had some unallocated money, the unexpected expense didn’t create problems.

You might also consider changing the timing of when you disperse money. At Robert Frost Elementary, the PTO gave teachers a gift card for supplies at the start of the year instead of waiting until the middle or end of the year to see what money was left over and what the teachers’ needs were. “We changed the budget around to have the funds right away,” Osmundson says. That allowed teachers to buy what they wanted much sooner.

What You Have (and Don’t Have)

When evaluating what was done the previous year, parent groups try to gauge interest, needs, and resources. When one or more of those factors are lacking, it’s probably time for a change. That might involve simplifying.

At Daniel A. Grout Elementary in Portland, Ore., the PTA used to hold an annual rummage sale that involved a lot of work. They rented a portable storage unit to store the items they collected for weeks in advance of the sale, at which they also sold concessions and plants. When the family in charge of the event bowed out, the PTA decided to scrap it until someone suggested later in the year that it might be resurrected in a simpler format. Instead of collecting items, they just asked people to bring them that same day for a yard sale.

“It’s similar to the previous event but was planned at the last minute, and now we’re re-energized about it,” says Johanna Colgrove, PTA president. “You don’t have to keep doing things the same way.”

Another change is to eliminate a program. At Cunningham Park Elementary, the PTA decided not to keep an arts program in which parent volunteers created presentations about artists and then led a related art project in the classroom. “It was hard to find parents to commit time to it,” Schmorrow says. “And the teachers themselves and the administrators felt like it was just one more thing cutting into the curriculum.” Since the PTA already conducts other arts enrichment activities, they decided to let this one go.

It can be difficult for driven personalities to delegate responsibilities. Many PTO leaders admit that they need to do more of this—and would welcome the help—but worry that important work won’t get done if they’re not in charge. But they might be surprised at what happens when they empower others. “I don’t organize events,” Colgrove says. “That’s not my job. My job is to facilitate other people doing it. This gives me free time and flexibility and gives other people ownership of those events.”

Devoting extra time to volunteer recruitment, particularly personal outreach, can be especially effective. “Most of my success is just picking up the phone and directly asking parents to volunteer for a leadership position,” Osmundson says. “They appreciate thinking that you thought of them personally to fill this position. I always say why they would be good at it.”

And seek help from other groups. For several years, the Back-to-School Bash at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., was great except for the food service. With 1,000 people all wanting to eat at the same time, the logistics were difficult. The first year, they ran out of pizza. A more long-term problem was getting people served in a timely fashion. Recently, they turned the food service over to the athletic boosters, who jumped at the chance to raise some extra money for their needs. “It was perfect,” says PTO president Claudia Hardcastle. “They’re used to doing concessions, and we didn’t have to worry about the food.”

Be Flexible and Have Fun

No matter how meticulously you lay your plans, accept that things won’t go exactly as expected. That’s just part of life—and potentially part of your PTO lore. “People still talk about running out of food,” Hardcastle says. “It’s a fun memory about when we didn’t know what we were doing. Certainly there were times when people were not happy—everybody was hungry—but families under-stand that we’re just a bunch of parents volunteering to do something fun for the school.”

And remember that plans don’t always have to be elaborate—sometimes the best events are the most informal. Twenty different languages are spoken in the Daniel A. Grout Elementary community, and reaching such a diverse population can be a challenge. So last year a parent started a monthly get-together for kindergarten parents. One Friday a month, 45 minutes before school dismisses, these parents are invited to hang out in the teachers lounge for homemade cookies and coffee. They also receive a list of other parents’ phone numbers. “It’s a nice, low-key way to reach some parents who don’t necessarily come to PTA meetings,” Colgrove says.

Finally, have a good time—which is the objective of a well-planned year. “I’ve tried to make people realize it can be done, that it doesn’t have to be difficult,” Gantman says. “The PTO can be fun and inclusive. We want people to feel part of the process. It’s not brain surgery. There’s no wrong answer, no wrong way to do things. We’re all doing our best, and it’s a good avenue for making friends and being involved.”


Low-Stress Success Tips

Be warm and welcoming at meetings. The Daniel A. Grout Elementary PTA gives all parents a cookie as they introduce themselves and say what they want from the school.

Use online sign-up sheets so parents can easily volunteer for events and see who else is participating.

Use a free electronic survey tool like SurveyMonkey.com or Google Docs to get quick feedback from parents and teachers.

Encourage parents to “Like” your PTO Facebook page as a way to help them keep abreast of school activities while protecting their private information.

Use Gmail or Outlook calendars that you can share with others and that will send meeting reminders to your smartphone.

Have emails sent to your phone so you can respond during downtime.

Place a “to do” bucket in each teacher’s classroom where the teacher can put tasks (with instructions) for parent volunteers, such as copying, laminating, and stapling. This simplifies the process for the teacher and makes sure that work is available when volunteers show up.