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Whose Rules, School or PTO?

Collaboration between PTO and school is crucial to success, but it's also important to know who has final say when disputes arise.
by Sandra Pfau Englund

How much control does your local school board, superintendent, or principal attempt to exercise over the PTO? Recently, I attended the first PTO meeting at my children’s new school. I was surprised to learn that the local board of education has issued rules attempting to regulate the operation of school parent and booster organizations. Some of the regulations make sense, but others may go beyond the legal authority of the school board and hamper the ability of the PTO to operate effectively.

If a PTO is a program of the school—it is set up and managed by the school—then the school may supervise and control the activities of the PTO. In such a case, however, the school also is liable in a legal sense for the activities of its PTO program. For independent PTOs, those that are separately incorporated or that operate as independent, unincorporated associations of parents, the school has more limited authority. The school may supervise and control an independent PTO regarding the use of school facilities and the activities students engage in during school hours or as part of a school program. Beyond that, however, the PTO’s own rules—constitution or articles of incorporation and bylaws—should control.

One crucial note before we get into specifics. Principals and parent groups each hold considerable power to make the other’s work easy—and miserable. Know your group’s rights and stand up for them, but do it through discussion and negotiation. Divisiveness and animosity hurt the school and the children. You don’t want to create a situation like that whenever it can be avoided, and your principal shouldn’t, either.

At my children’s new school the school board has set forth regulations, including these three:

  • The group must receive approval from the principal when planning functions in which students will participate.

  • The use of school facilities must be requested through the principal.

  • All items donated by parent or booster groups become the property of the school, and the school may use or later modify or sell those items.

These regulations are within the legal authority of the school. Any activity involving students, including distributing fundraising materials or PTO newsletters through the classrooms or organizing assemblies or other enrichment activities in which the students will participate, may be controlled by the school. In addition, any activity involving school facilities, such as an annual fall fair or other fundraisers, may require the approval of the school for use of the facilities owned and controlled by the school.

Also, items donated to the school become the property of the school to do with as desired. For example, it may upset PTO members to learn that computers they donated have been sold or used in the library rather than the classrooms designated by the parent group, but once the items have been donated, the PTO has no legal authority over them.


Other rules of my local school board go beyond its legal authority.

  • Parent and booster organizations must submit their annual fundraising plans to the school principal, and the plans then must be approved by the school board prior to the start of the school year.

  • The principal must approve and supervise all fundraising activities.

  • The mutual agreement of the principal is required prior to purchasing equipment, supplies, or materials for the school.

  • All funds of parent groups must be deposited in either FDIC or FSLIC institutions.

  • An outside audit of financial records must be conducted each year, and a copy of the report must be submitted to the principal and the school system’s finance officer.

  • Funds of any parent or booster group must revert to the school if the group dissolves.

Annual fundraising plans are submitted to the school board to ensure that multiple schools are not attempting to sell candy or wrapping paper at the same time. However, the rule also may hinder the local PTO if it comes up with a new fundraising idea during the year and is unable to move forward with it.

Legally, an independent parent group may raise funds for a school without anyone’s approval. The PTO can even state, without the school’s approval, that the funds are being raised to purchase new computers or a playground. The school may refuse the funds or items purchased with them, but it cannot legally control the fundraising. So while cooperation is important to make sure the school wants the money raised or items purchased, sometimes schools attempt to exercise control beyond their legal authority.

Know Your Rights

Similarly, while depositing funds in secure banking institutions and conducting an annual audit are good financial practices, the school and school board have no legal authority to impose these regulations on the PTO. The school board may make suggestions regarding financial controls. However, the PTO has the authority to determine and implement its own financial practices.

In addition, the PTO may determine how its funds are distributed upon dissolution. Under IRS rules, organizations tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) must distribute funds to other (c)(3) groups upon dissolution. The school may be the logical recipient, or it may make sense to distribute the funds to a new or different parent or booster group.

Cooperation between any parent group and the school it supports is essential to carry out the mission of the PTO. However, as a PTO leader you should understand the extent of a school’s legal authority over your organization’s activities. This may allow you to make better and more informed decisions about the operation of your group.

Sandra Pfau Englund is an attorney specializing in legal issues for PTOs and other nonprofit organizations.



#53 Jennifer Reinoehl 2014-12-11 00:16
We have 1 annual fundraiser - a winter dance. In fact, the PTO ONLY runs this dance at this point and donates the excess funds to the school. The dance was held in a church, but it was too pricey for our budget. We found a half price venue, but the admin. said we had to have it at the church or school. We are chose the school.
We are paying the D.J.s, but the school admin. now says we must play New York New York (we are located in Indiana) and Donna Summer's Last Dance at the dance. This is not the only thing they have told us we had to do.
Our bylaws state that we operate under our bylaws and a district non-profit organization-bu t the bylaws are old. I cannot find anyone who has even heard about this organization, nor have I been given a copy of its bylaws. We fill out the IRS form specifically for our PTO each year for the fed. and state governments.
Is the admin. acting legally? Can they tell a non-profit what to do outside of school hours?
#52 Jason 2013-10-29 02:18
Hello, We are a school photo company and were told by the school district that we could solicit last spring and would be allowed on the bid list this fall. We had around 10 schools wanting to sign with us. We are not a small company and have business in three states. To make a long story short the district kept putting us off and finally we had to tell the schools we were still not on the bid list. Two schools pulled out but the others where the PTO controlled photos said they could ignore the district. We checked in further and got the same response for the head of the PTO in our state. We decided to go ahead and do the school photos at the schools run by the PTO. However, today we got an angry email from the District telling us we are not allowed back in the schools. We are confused. Who is correct here? The PTO or the School District? The PTO here doesn't seem to care for the district. Any suggestions are welcome. Thanks
#51 Craig Bystrynski 2013-10-21 16:05
This is definitely troubling. It's important for a PTO to be transparent in its finances -- anyone in the position of auditor should know that. Several thousand dollars is a lot of money not to have a paper trail for. There are several issues, but one of them is that if people feel you're not being careful with money, you'll have a much harder time raising funds.

Also, the treasurer should certainly not be writing checks for thousands of dollars that haven't been approved by the board or at least by the president. It's important to make sure, in no uncertain terms, that she understands that. Even if she's just trying to help, it's not her prerogative to make that kind of decision. Maybe you should, as one measure, start requiring two signatures on every check.
#50 Fiana 2013-10-20 06:55
Our Charter school fundraiser and also the PTO board auditor, spent a few thousand dollars which wasn't approved on a small fundraising event and refused to present any receipt on his spending? And he has no problem getting the money even that wasn't approved because he has the board treasurer on his side.

Can a fundraiser be a PTO's auditor or treasurer at the same time?

Please help.
#49 PTO Mom 2013-09-21 15:39
hi everyone,
recently in our Presidential Council meeting (11 schools represented by their PTO/PTA Presidents) we were shocked when an item was brought up that wasn't on the agenda. The Superintendant of the district asked one of the Presidents to ask if we would pool fundraising money to the sum of $200,000 to help with implementing Google Chrome in the elementary and middle schools. It wasn't on the agenda and there was no paperwork and the discussion was vague. To say this was sneaky by the district is an understatement. Should PTOs be allowed to fundraise for something a district should provide? We are all furious! Help--we need some guidance. We are in Illinois where our state is completely messed up which doesn't help anything!
#48 John M 2013-08-16 05:34
Our high school's principal has stated unequivocally that students may not participate in our independent PTO fundraisers, specifically car washes and bake sales off campus even though these events are not during school hours. Our parents believe the school has no right to stop participating and supervising parents from allowing their children to participate in baking cookies, washing cars, or just being at the car wash with the parents. It seems unlawful for a school to forbid a parent from involving the child if the student really wants to wash cars. Is the school overstepping its legal authority to forbid family participation in fundraisers?
#47 frustrated volunteer 2013-08-13 18:05
A year and a half ago, our Parent Teacher Group went through all the process to become a 501(1)c. We have, naturally, by-laws, the state cerification letter, the IRS non-profit approval...but our principle just yesterday shut us down because she , and she actually said this on the phone to me, she "...doesn't like these ladies. They will not give her what she needs." So, because she doesn't like that the PTG wouldn't write her checks over the summer for items not approved by the members to purchase, she told us we couldn't have meetings. This morning the district offices call supporting the principles decision. ? I don't...where do they...are they serious? UGH! Where do we go from here? Nothing outside the by-laws was done by the vp or pres, they simply wouldn't write checks for what the prinicple wanted. (Which is, incidently, why the group was made a legal corporation.) Oh, and the principle cancelled the fundraiser that is supposed to start next week leaving the PTG stuck with the bill.
#46 stressedptovp 2013-07-26 08:20
Wow. According to this our principal is definitely overstepping. She has just mandated that all PTO purchases be approved by her and not just equipment or items for the schools use. She also mandated that she approve items teachers or members are requesting prior to them being brought to the members for a vote. She says we can only buy from district approved vendors. The schools office manager will submit bid requests for us. She says she has final say in how our PTO's money is spent. We are in Arizona is this even legal. I have tried searching the internet for information and can't find anything. Can she do this? Does anyone know where I can find more information on this? We are incorporated as far as I know. We have our own tax id number, bank account, bylaws, and board. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
#45 Rockne 2013-04-26 17:08
Hi Michelle -

Sounds like you are at a Catholic school? The question of "who's rules?" certainly get more clear at a private school, where the Principal is typically more empowered and schools have a greater ability to do as they please.
That doesn't mean at all that your principal is doing the right thing here, but it does mean that you need to proceed on merits and process, more than on any kind of "you can't do this!" platform. Have folks discussed this with the Principal? What are his or her concerns? What does he or she want to have happen? Can you set up an appointment for a calm conversation with no accusations? I think that's your next step.
#44 Michelle Glanville 2013-04-26 03:37
I am secretary of our school pto. This past year has been a real night mare. The school principal has been sitting on pto correspondance, approving and then denying event plans to the point that she has implimented a policy that monies cannot leave the school except with the treasurer. We had a fundraiser and she left $3000 in cadh in a cabinet in the kitchen at school thst most of the parish has access to. Today I found out that our treasurer ordered more checks 3 months ago, they came in and the principal will not release the checks to the treasurer. She is not on the account. We are at a loss as to what to do. Any help would be appreciated. Michelle glanville, Toledo, OH

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