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PTO vs. PTA FAQs

Answers to some basic questions about PTOs and PTAs, including how to get started organizing your group.
  1. What does "PTO" mean?
  2. What's the difference between "PTO" and "PTA"?
  3. Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone not-for-profit organizations?
  4. What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?
  5. Do PTOs lobby or get involved with politics?
  6. How do I start a PTO?
  7. How do we change from a PTA to a PTO?
  8. How do we join/contact the National PTO?
  9. What if we have more questions?

1. What does "PTO" mean?

"PTO" typically stands for "parent-teacher organization" and is the general acronym for the approximately 75 percent of parent-teacher groups that choose to remain independent of the National PTA. Many independent groups refer to themselves as a PTO; others have acronyms such as HSA (Home and School Association), PCC (Parent Communication Council), or the like. In the typical PTO vs. PTA discussion, all independent groups—those not affiliated with the National PTA—fall under the general PTO umbrella.

2. What's the difference between "PTO" and "PTA"?

In a nutshell, PTAs are local groups that affiliate with the National PTA. These groups pay dues to their respective state PTAs and to the National PTA, and they receive benefits from those organizations. "PTO" is the general acronym for the many groups (PTOs, PCCs, HSAs, etc.) that choose to remain independent. PTOs are free to write their own bylaws, and they can either charge no dues at all—a nice touch to encourage involvement—or keep whatever dues they do charge at their school.

While "PTA" is the most well-recognized acronym to the general public, perhaps because of the Harper Valley song and movie, these days approximately 75 percent of K-8 parent-teacher groups are actually independent PTOs. Of the more than 112,000 K-12 schools in the United States, only about 25,000 of those still have formally affiliated PTA units. We published a feature story on the PTO vs. PTA issue that may add more insight.

3. Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone, not-for-profit organizations?

No, not at all.

PTOs have always been eligible to get their own 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, and thousands of PTOs have already done so. This is exactly the same legal/tax designation that PTAs typically have.

Some PTOs do not take the step of officially establishing their independence with the IRS, which typically results in the group being basically a committee or organization of the school. This option is especially common at religious and private schools. It’s a structural choice that has worked for many groups for a long time and is acceptable, if that’s what your group wants.

For many years, being a PTO did mean being completely on your own, with little assistance or help available. If you wanted insurance as a PTO, for example, your only real option was going to your local broker and trying your luck. Similarly, there was really nowhere to turn for insight on something as innocuous as how to run a spaghetti supper or as essential as building parent involvement—and why involvement is so important.

Since 1999, however, PTO leaders as well as PTA leaders have had the many resources provided by PTO Today to help them do their work more effectively. The vast majority of PTO Today's resources—our 80,000-circulation print magazine, most of this ptotoday.com website, and our many kits and programs, for example—are provided free of charge to all parent-teacher groups, no matter the acronym.

As another example, whereas once PTOs really could only get insurance at a very high rate from a local broker, today PTOs can get very competitive group rates through a resource that PTO Today has put together.

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4. What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?

PTO Today is a media and services company focused on the world of parent-teacher groups. Our print magazine is mailed to every K-8 school in the country (addressed to the PTO or PTA officers) seven times per year. Similarly, this website and our many services are used by tens of thousands of parent group leaders from both PTOs and PTAs every week.

That’s really the extent of it. Neither PTOs nor PTAs “belong” to PTO Today nor are they “members” of PTO Today, as PTO Today is not a membership organization. PTAs and PTOs can, however, join PTO Today Plus for a fee which provides parent groups an even higher level of service and benefits. Groups do not need to belong to Plus to make use of a majority of our services.

If you have ideas for how we can be of more service, please let us know.

5. Do PTOs lobby or get involved with politics?

Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It’s really up to the local PTO.

That said, this really is one of the fundamental differences between PTOs and PTAs. The National PTA is very openly an advocacy organization with a lobbying office in Washington and similar efforts in several state capitals. Being a PTA ties you into that political effort. That’s  a positive for some groups (those for whom state or national political advocacy is a goal) and a negative for others (often those who might disagree with a particular PTA position and not appreciate supporting that position with dues dollars).

PTOs usually take one of two directions when it comes to politics and lobbying. They either decide to stay completely out of it, usually because they choose to focus on involvement and community and feel that politics gets in the way of that, or they get active at the local level with at-school or in-district issues.

6. How do I start a PTO?

If you're just starting a parent group (or looking to button up your existing, fairly informal PTO), our best advice is to join PTO Today Plus. Among other benefits of membership—access to group insurance discounts, discounts on all PTO Today products and services, multiple subscriptions to our print magazine, etc.—is our expert PTO Start-Up Toolkit. It walks parent leaders through the key first steps in starting an independent parent group, including incorporation, bylaws, applying for nonprofit status, and group insurance.

Even without PTO Today Plus membership, groups can still form PTOs. You'll want to incorporate (check with your state), and we also recommend filing for nonprofit status with the federal government. Another important first step is to write bylaws that will govern your group. We've compiled a wide variety of sample bylaws from groups around the country in one of our message board threads and in the Bylaws/Policies section of the File Exchange.

7. How do we change from a PTA to a PTO?

This is really a two-part question because the process for disbanding an existing PTA is independent of the process to start a PTO. You're not really turning your PTA into a PTO. Technically, you're winding down your PTA and starting a completely separate entity—your new PTO. In fact, it's perfectly all right to have the new PTO start up before the PTA is completely disbanded. We recommend this timing, in fact, because it helps ensure that there is no gap between the end of the PTA and the beginning of the PTO. Read “Switching From PTA to PTO” for more information.

Some thoughts if you're considering dissolving your PTA:

To dissolve your existing PTA, you'll want to refer to the procedures in your existing PTA bylaws. Each state PTA has slightly different dissolution requirements involving notice to the state PTA, notice and discussion among your local unit’s members, and what type of vote is required for dissolution. One question that comes up frequently is dealing with the remaining PTA funds at the time of dissolution. The simplest recommendation is to have as few dollars as possible in your treasury before taking a formal disband-or-don’t-disband vote. In that way, if your group votes to disband, then there is very little to worry about financially (one less complication)—and if you vote not to disband, then you can just return to business as usual.

For most groups, spending the treasury down to near zero is a matter of spending dollars on items that you typically support (teacher stipends or field trips or purchases for school, etc.) while perhaps postponing one fundraiser until after your vote. It’s also allowable for 501(c)(3) groups to donate funds to other tax-exempt organizations.

After that, most state PTA bylaws require that you announce a meeting X number of days in advance (often 30), and—after debate—the dissolution vote usually needs to pass by a 60 percent or 66 percent super-majority. In a few states, bylaws require that you invite a state PTA representative to your dissolution meeting and allow that person floor time to speak. This can often lead to testy moments. If your bylaws don't specifically require that kind of visit, then you are not required to allow it. If you do invite the state representative to your meeting, remember that the guest speaker is just that: a guest. He or she is not a voting member of your group, and your presiding officer (presumably the president) should control the meeting—who speaks, when they speak, how long they speak, etc.—just as they would at any other meeting of your PTA.  

We've heard from many former PTA leaders that state PTA officials made the dissolution process seem very difficult and that the relationship between the dissolving unit and the state PTA became confrontational. While that’s regrettable—if your group has done its homework on all the pros and cons and still wants to make the switch—the important things to remember are: 1) you just need to follow your bylaws as best you can; and 2) many thousands of groups have successfully dissolved before you. Remain professional and buttoned up (and focused on the good work you want to do for your school and the kids), and things will work fine.

In terms of transition, it’s actually perfectly OK to start the process of creating a PTO before your formal vote is taken on dissolving your PTA. That might include getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS and even applying for tax-exempt status (though you have 27 months to actually file this paperwork and your approval will be retroactive to your PTO’s start-up or incorporation date). In this way, you can avoid any “gap” between the formal end of your PTA and the formal start of your PTO.  

There is nothing at all wrong with having both a PTO and a PTA in existence at the same time, especially if that helps make a transition smoother and helps parents continue to do good work for your school and kids. It’s equivalent to having a “football boosters” club and a “pigskin parents” club in existence at the same time at the same school. It might be odd or confusing for parents if both were to operate for the long-term, but there’s certainly nothing legally or ethically wrong with having more than one organization with the mission of helping your school and your kids in existence at the same time. And creating that overlap can help with the transition. If the PTA disband vote doesn’t pass, it’s a very simple matter to let the new PTO go dormant.

8. How do we join/contact the National PTO?

There is no "National PTO" in the traditional sense. Even though PTOs are the most common type of parent group, each PTO is independent.

That said, many folks consider PTO Today Inc. to be the closest equivalent to a national PTO. With our national magazine, national website, events across the country, and PTO Today Plus package of benefits, PTO Today is providing key services to a broad spectrum of parent groups in all 50 states. You can reach us directly through this site.

9. More questions? We're here to help.

If you have questions on a parent group issue, odds are it's been discussed on our message boards. There's even a message boards search function that can help you find what you're looking for. In many cases, the combined knowledge of our many website users is more effective (and quicker) than a note to our editors.

If you have a question for specific PTO Today staffers, you can contact us by email. If you want to ask a general question or leave general feedback, email info@ptotoday.com.

 

Comments   

#31 Rockne 2012-09-28 15:05
Hi Kim -- Glad PTA is a good choice for you and, I assume, your whole group. I'm "that PTO guy", so I thought i'd clarify the one statement around dues. You're right that state and local dues combined are about $4 per person in most states (quite a bit higher in some), but my point about thousands of dollars actually refers to the total dues a unit as a whole sends out to state and national PTA. I saw a news item last week about a Florida high school PTA with more than 1,000 members. That group is basically paying at least $3,000 to be a PTA. There's nothing wrong with that (and this site and all of our services are available to them no matter their acronym), but that's the reality. Every group makes its own decision on which format is right for their circumstances.
#30 Kim 2012-09-28 04:08
PTA teaches volunteers how to run a non-profit board well. They send instructions and reminders to be sure no one forgets to do the taxes or sends the other required paperwork to the Attorney General, and all those other things groups are required to do by law. They believe in helping all kids. It's a very noble organization. We pay hardly anything... only $4.00 per member, so not "thousands" as the PTO guy said somewhere on here.

As your kids grow up and move out of the house, you will have more time to serve on your college board, the local symphony board... PTA will have trained you well and you will be valuable to any organization.
#29 Craig Bystrynski 2010-10-12 15:00
Cindy -- The first thing you should do is create a written inventory of all PTO property on hand and perform an formal review of your books. The article Annual Audit: How and Why will help:

ptotoday.com/.../...

If you think there's been wrongdoing (vs. mismanagement), you should go to the police and ask them to investigate. If it turns out to be a matter of poor recordkeeping and money management, performing the audit and inventory will give you a baseline to start with a clean slate.

I'd also recommend the article 5 Smart Financial Controls:

ptotoday.com/.../...

Good luck!

Craig
#28 Cindy 2010-10-09 03:33
When there seems to be discrepency in the past presidents minutes of meetings, spending, and the where abouts of things purchased who do you go to have this looked into!
New to PTO! Can any help me! Thanks
#27 Tim Sullivan 2009-03-27 15:38
Hi Chad -

PTO Today Plus is primarily a "leader resource" as opposed to a "parent" resource, so it''s more of a resource for the folks who will be leading that start process. At this time, no, it does not come in Spanish.

Tim
#26 Chad 2009-03-11 17:01
Currently we have some parents who are interested in starting up a PTO. It sounds as if the PTO Today Plus is a good resource for parents to refer to. Does the resource come in Spanish?
#25 Momof3Js 2009-02-06 00:38
....for example, the local PTA district is disbanning due to lack of attendance..... .....
#24 Momof3Js 2009-02-06 00:36
RE:PTA's benefits, and work already done. For our PTA, which may soon become a PTA, we cannot function without a quorum! So, basically, if we can't get enough people to come to the meetings (only 2 meetings out of 7), we cannot vote through expenses or proposed expenses for the 'benefit' of our children's experiences.
I feel stuck in the middle...I appreciate the structure and guidelines of the PTA, but am stifled by them at the same time...
I absolutely appreaciate PTO Today, an all the information and ideas provided, and all the people that freely express their opinions and experiences! Thank you.
#23 Lysa 2008-12-11 01:40
PTA, PTO, Home and School association.... whatever you call it, what matters is what are they doing for the kids? I can tell you from a school that has a PTA, that the red tape and legal issues with belonging to a national organization does not seem to benefit our cause.
I cannot find out much about HSA, but I know enough about PTO to think that this is the route for us. I find little benefit to being a PTA member. The conventions are informational, but you do not need to be an active PTA member to attend a conference. Just sign up and pay your 5.00 or whatever to the school district of your choice and you can attend. I applaud you for addressing all the misinformed folks of this forum.
#22 Tracey 2008-11-22 04:32
I can't figure out why you say having a 501(c)(3) status is not required as a PTO. If you are not operating as a 501(c)(3) organization, then donations are not tax deductible. Also, wouldn't you be paying income tax on your fundraising activities. And then what about sales tax exemption? If you don't have 501(c)(3) status then what type of entity would you be considered?

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