Some schools have made a big deal about getting rid of it. Others never had it. Some couldn't do without it. In amounts ranging from $2 at Gray's Woods Elementary School in Port Matilda, Pa., to $25 at Brandon Academy in Brandon, Fla., "it" is the PTO membership fee. And opinions vary widely on whether charging parents to join a volunteer organization is a good idea.
While PTAs must pay national dues, that is not the case with PTOs, which use membership income in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is designated as seed money for the year, while other times it goes into the organization's general fund. Sometimes it's set aside for a specific need, such as insurance. At Greensview Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio, $5 is collected from each member to cover both PTO membership and room party fees.
At Barrington High School in Barrington, Ill., most of the PTO's $27,000 annual budget comes from membership fees, and $7,000 of this amount goes to fund the school's impressive college advisory program. The program culminates in a fair attended by 400 colleges and universities.
But how does this kind of fee affect membership? The $20 membership fee charged by the Barrington High PTO certainly hasn't hurt participation, which PTO adviser Cinda Pittman estimates at 50 percent of the families of the school's 2,500 students. "In this school district, people just take it for granted," she says, adding that Illinois parents already have to pay almost $300 in book and technology fees each year. "It starts in elementary school with a membership fee of $3 to $5, then $10 at the middle school, and by the time the children get to high school, parents are used to it. They assume that to join the PTO, you have to pay a membership fee. We never hear any complaints about it, and it's not controversial."
But Sharon Lang, president of the PTO at Macedon Elementary School in Macedon, N.Y., believes that membership would decline if her school's PTO instituted a fee. "It's hard enough to get parents involved without them having to pay on top of it," she says. That sentiment is echoed by Sara Schafer, president of the Edith Wolford Elementary School PTO in Colorado Springs, Colo., who says, "We do not charge a membership fee, as we have a hard time getting people to attend."
The membership fee was part of the reason the PTA became a PTO two years ago at Shell Beach Elementary School in Shell Beach, Calif. "The PTA dues were going up from $5 to $7 per person," says PTO President Andrea Gaslan. "We felt it was wrong that parents had to pay to spend their time volunteering. The donation of their time should be more than enough to ask from them." And since getting rid of membership fees, Shell Beach's annual fall festival has grown from a $12,000 fundraiser to one that brought in nearly $20,000 this year. Was the lack of a membership fee a factor in the higher parent involvement that in turn generated more money? Partly, says Gaslan. "By not asking that membership fee of them, it's a lot easier to ask for their time."
The PTO at Saint Michael School in North Andover, Mass., has waived its $15 membership fee for the past two years, announcing to parents that they could keep their money because start-up funds had been set aside from the previous year's fundraising. Other PTOs that don't charge membership fees make it a point in their publications and websites to emphasize to parents that there is no fee and that all parents are automatically members of the PTO.
Money or Hours?
But plenty of schools do charge fees, and many parents feel pride in the commitment they’ve shown by paying those fees. The question is whether this kind of commitment ultimately benefits the school. "People felt like if they paid their money, they 'paid their dues,' " says Gaslan. "That was their involvement." True, says Wanda Jones, president of the PTO at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Ala., but she believes the membership fee allows some parents to contribute in the only way they can. "Some people would rather go ahead and pay the membership fee because they can't volunteer or support the school in other areas, so they feel that's their way of participating," she says.
Research conducted by Lee Shumow, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, supports the idea that many parents view dues as their main contribution to the PTO. "Analyses that I did using a large nationally representative data set, the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, showed that far more parents are passive [dues-paying] members of the PTO rather than active members [attend meetings, volunteer, serve on committees]," she says. "I inferred that many parents see paying their dues as a minimal way that they can support the PTO even if they do not have time to attend meetings, volunteer, or do committee work."
Shumow suggests allowing members to pay on a semester or monthly basis to reduce the amount of money needed at one time. Also, she says, suggest that members provide services for the organization in lieu of dues. That’s the approach taken by St. Louis Catholic School in Alexandria, Va., where two-parent families are expected to contribute to the PTO by volunteering 15 hours of service, raising at least $300 through fundraising, or paying a $150 fee; single parents must meet half of this requirement.
Asking parents to choose between paying a membership fee or contributing their time is often a viable option because it encourages all parents to participate in whatever way they can, while still maintaining a cash flow that is necessary for PTOs like Stockbridge Elementary School in Stockbridge, Ga. "We'd need to do extra fundraisers without fees," says Copresident Cathy Medert, adding that part of this year's membership fees will help to buy playground equipment. Not having membership fees also would impact the good works at Thompson High School, where those funds are going toward the purchase of 200 books needed for the school library to become accredited. "It's totally different at a high school," says Jones. "We don't have a lot of fundraisers."
A Little Appreciation
Some schools ease the pain of payment with a thank-you gift. The Oxford PTO in Oxford, Conn., sends home a refrigerator magnet as a thank-you for paying membership fees. In Bethany, Conn., the Bethany Community School PTO offers a directory and a note pad, while J.L. Thomas Elementary School in Plano, Texas, gave paying parent group members a packet of coupons from local retailers one year. At Stockbridge Elementary, the PTO spends about $1,500 annually on gifts such as water bottles and coin pouches imprinted with the school logo to sign up 500 members.
Instead of thank-you gifts, the membership fee at some PTOs makes the member eligible for certain privileges, such as the right to vote at meetings. That’s the case at Peavy Primary School in Lufkin, Texas, where $3 makes a person eligible to cast a ballot.
Some schools avoid the dilemma altogether by not charging membership fees but by encouraging donations during membership drives. "We have $5 dues, but it’s voluntary," says Liz Clippinger, PTO treasurer at Wales Elementary School in Wales, Wisc. "Most pay $5, but some donate more." At Kenston Forest School in Blackstone, Va., there are no membership fees, but the PTO website explains that donations "from outside sources" are accepted.
Even with a uniform membership fee, PTO officers have neither the time nor the inclination to track down parents who don’t pay. "It’s not a big deal to us," says Cheryl Borden, PTA parliamentarian at J.L. Thomas Elementary in Plano. "We’re just lucky to have people participate."
Initiating the Debate About Fee Change
Whether you charge a membership fee can have a significant effect on your PTO, both in terms of cash flow and participation. However, many schools prefer to stick with tradition without bringing the issue up. For example, PTO membership committee chairperson Vivian Rodriguez says the fee at Tolland Elementary School in Tolland, Conn., has been $5 per family for as long as she can remember. "It never comes up," she says. "It's been that way and no one questions it."
That's also the case at Wales Elementary School in Wales, Wis. "There's no fee," says PTO Treasurer Liz Clippinger. "It's not an issue, and it's not discussed." But if your group does choose to have such a discussion, here are some things to consider:
- Discuss whether dropping a membership fee might encourage more parent participation or whether you might offer a choice between paying a fee or participating in PTO activities.
- If you think a fee is needed, decide how much it should be. Many PTOs charge $5, but the amounts vary greatly depending on location, size of school, and past fundraising success. Decide also whether the fee is assessed per individual or per family. A per-person fee might discourage dads from getting involved.
- Estimate how much money membership fees might bring in. If it’s not very much, an extra fundraiser could be more effective and involve more parents. When the PTO at Shell Beach Elementary School in Shell Beach, Calif., dropped its membership fee and got more parents to help at its fall festival, the result was more networking among parents and improved school spirit. And ultimately, says PTO President Andrea Gaslan, "It snowballs into more financial benefits for us."
- If you do have a fee, designate a specific use for those funds, and make sure parents know where the money goes. At J.L. Thomas Elementary, which recently switched from a PTO to a PTA, the membership fees were specifically assigned to paying for room parties and funding a directory for the Plano, Texas, school.
- Explain to parents that paying the membership fee supports the school but does not require a certain commitment. "Parents often don't realize that you can join but don't have to physically be at the school every day," says Cheryl Borden, PTA parliamentarian at J.L. Thomas Elementary. "They may not understand that joining is supporting the group. They might look at it like joining a club, thinking they’ll be obligated to physically help or provide support."
How Parents Responded to a Fee Change
The speed at which students and their parents come and go at Kingsolver Elementary School in Fort Knox, Ky., is dizzying. With most of the families in the military, about a fourth of the 200-plus student population in the K-3 school rotates each year. Because families drop in and out throughout the year—and because money can be particularly tight for one-income families trying to make it on soldiers' salaries—the PTO dropped its $2 membership fee about three years ago.
"It definitely has had an impact on membership," says PTO President Heather Grover. "We've reached individuals who might not have joined because of money constraints or other issues, but they're contributing more than $2 worth of time, energy, and enthusiasm."
Despite conducting only one major fundraiser annually, the Kingsolver PTO isn't hurting from the loss of $400 in membership fees. And there's still a membership drive in which current PTO members orient new parents and pass around sign-up sheets seeking volunteers.
But instead of asking for a membership fee, the group sets out a bucket with a sign that says "Donations Accepted."
Some people toss in money, sometimes up to $10 or $15, for a total of about $80 during a recent drive that brought in 20 new members. But those who don't pay, says Grover, tend to be very active.