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Spending Survey 2011-12: PTOs and PTAs Feeling the Strain

Our look at parent group spending priorities finds that overstretched school budgets are having a broad effect.

by Emily Graham and Craig Bystrynski
Spending Survey 2011-12

PTOs and PTAs have always played a key role in their school communities, helping parents get involved and supporting schools with money and volunteers. Now, with a greater push toward parent involvement in education and widespread school budget cuts, many parent groups are serving an increasingly larger and more vital function. In many cases, parents fill in when support staff positions are cut, and PTOs and PTAs find themselves buying basic supplies that had been covered by the school in the past.

To find out more about how groups are helping their schools in the 2011-12 school year, PTO Today conducted an online questionnaire of parent group leaders in November. A total of 634 leaders responded, sharing how the school’s expectations of their PTO have changed in the past year. The results are nonscientific, but they provide a glimpse into the challenges facing schools and parent groups and how groups are coping.

More Financial Support

Fundraising has taken on increasing importance for parent groups as school funding has declined. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed say they have been asked to do more to benefit the school financially this year than last year, with only 4 percent saying they’ve been asked to do less.

Some parent group leaders indicated that they are being asked to fund large-scale items that schools traditionally need help with, such as technology items, playground equipment, and shade structures. Many more said they are working to fill holes that used to be covered by the school district.

“Our district is struggling financially, in part due to our state’s funding system,” wrote Patti Wigington, secretary of the Harmon Middle School PTO in Pickerington, Ohio. “There are a number of things that we would like to see in our school that the district simply can’t afford. We are being asked to fund curriculum and operating expenses, in addition to things that are more geared towards enrichment.”

One group was asked to supply each grade with $1,000 in addition to normal budget items. Others indicated that teacher grant requests have risen because the school is cutting back.

“Due to the economy, we chose to purchase some of the supplies that would normally be on the student’s school supply list,” noted Mary Ann Todd of the Athens (Ala.) Intermediate School PTO. “We are also rewarding our teachers with gift cards for appreciation since they did not receive money from the school system for this year.”

Many parent group leaders reported being asked to fund assemblies and enrichment activities to help make up for the loss of music, art, drama, and even gym programs. At one school, art and music programs were reintroduced this year, but the PTO still bore a financial burden—there was no school budget allotment for supplies, so the group was asked to fill the gap.

Some of the other items parent group leaders said they’ve been asked to fund include the school reading room, classroom supplies such as pencil sharpeners and scissors, bulletin boards and pinup strips for student artwork, library books, walkie-talkies, nursing supplies, field trips, school athletics, copy machines, and air conditioners.

A catch-22 for some groups is that while budget cuts mean the school needs more, the economy also has affected fundraising. Almost one-fifth of those surveyed (19 percent) saw slight declines in their fall 2011 fundraiser profits, while 7 percent had significant declines.

That creates a particular problem in areas where school closings have increased the population and class sizes at existing schools. “Since our fundraising has not provided as much support, we are working harder to seek new ways to meet our needs,” wrote Jessica Houghtaling of the Manatee Elementary Booster Club in Fort Myers, Fla. “Our enrollment is higher this year and our participation from the students in our events has increased, which has increased our costs.”

The key to balancing everything is smart planning, noted Tracy Fletcher of the Mitchell Elementary PTA in Golden, Colo. Her group worked closely with the school principal to organize better fundraising and a more targeted spending plan. “We just are getting smarter with our spending and looking at other ways of doing things,” she said.

Parent Group Budgets

More Demand for Volunteers

Along with increased fundraising, many groups are contributing more volunteer hours, often for tasks that teachers and office staff no longer have time to tackle.

“Because of budget cuts, volunteers are being asked to step in and help out where previously a duty aid or paid staff member would have done a job. Our teachers barely have enough time to deliver lesson plans, so they don’t have time to do things like make copies, grade papers, and pull cafeteria duty. Instead, volunteers are asked to pick up these tasks when possible,” Wigington wrote.

A total of 44 percent of respondents said they have been asked to do more to support the school through volunteering this year. The number was lower among parochial schools (27 percent) and charter schools (14 percent) and higher at non-parochial private schools (60 percent) and public schools (46 percent).

Parent group leaders reported being asked to help out with office activities, including staffing the front desk, and providing volunteer hours to cover recess, lunch areas, hallways, and the library. A number also indicated that the school population had increased significantly, increasing the demand for volunteers.

Where the Money Goes

The survey showed a wide range in parent group budgets. More than one-third of those surveyed (36 percent) reported budgets between $5,001 and $15,000. Almost one-quarter of respondents reported budgets of $5,000 or less.

Private schools were the most likely to have budgets of $15,000 or less (87 percent), compared with 60 percent of public schools and 50 percent of parochial or religious schools. Parochial and religious school were the most likely to have a budget of $35,000 or more (26 percent).

Reflecting recent budget cuts to nonessential programs, groups planned to spend the most on student enrichment, including assemblies, field trips, and author visits. After student enrichment, parent groups earmarked the most money for teaching aids, including classroom supplies, as well as technology purchases.

Notably, in each spending category leaders were asked about, a significant number said they plan to increase their spending in the 2011-12 school year:

  • 29 percent planned an increase in student enrichment spending.
  • 28 percent will spend more on family events.
  • 25 percent will spend more on school equipment or renovations.
  • 24 percent expect to increase their spending on teaching aids and classroom supplies.
  • 22 percent will spend more on technology purchases.
  • 21 percent will spend more on teacher and staff appreciation.
  • 11 percent will give more to a principal’s discretionary fund.

Some differences in parent group spending emerged among the different types of schools surveyed. For both public schools and charter schools, the two largest planned spending cate-gories were student enrichment and teaching aids. At private and parochial schools, the top two budgeted categories were for technology and school equipment or renovations.

Average Parent Group Spending by Category

How Groups Make Spending Decisions

The majority of groups surveyed—72 percent—prepare an annual budget. But as anyone who’s prepared a household budget knows, making a plan for how to spend your money is no easy task. It can be especially challenging for parent groups when they’re faced with more funding requests than they can afford.

Among those surveyed, it was common to meet with the principal to discuss school needs. Many groups surveyed teachers and/or parents for input, too. Parent group leaders then evaluated spending requests based on how well they addressed the group’s priorities. Spending priorities varied greatly among the groups surveyed.

Almost half of respondents, 49 percent, said they make decisions based on how many students and/or staff members will benefit. One such leader is Tanya Davis, president of the Staley Upper Elementary Parent Teacher Group in Rome, N.Y. “Because we have so many students [nearly 800], we focus on events and activities that reach the greatest amount of students,” Davis wrote. “We also focus on family events that bring the community together within our school.”

Several groups prioritized their spending as students first, then teachers, followed by families.

Classroom support is the top priority for the West Central Elementary Parent/Teacher Council in Francesville, Ind. It provides $100 to each teacher for classroom expenses and funds one field trip per class. Other requests are evaluated based on how they benefit students. “Our mission is simple: to provide the best educational experience so that every student has the opportunity to become a well-educated, productive, and responsible citizen,” explained PTC president Rebecca Stalbaum. “So if the money is not doing something for the students in some way, it does not hit top on our priorities.”

One group considers how much of the school population the proposed spending would affect. “Priority is given to items that would benefit the whole school, then grade level, then individual classroom,” wrote Nicole Rodriguez, president of the Bob Hope Primary School PTO on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

About one-fifth cared most about whether the expense fit with their parent group’s mission and goals. For 14 percent of groups, the most important factor to consider was how urgent the need was for the requested item.

In rural Easton, Maine, where the public schools serve 227 students from preK through 12th grade, the Parent Community Organization focuses on items that improve safety and keep classrooms running, followed by educational programs, says PCO cochair Cyndi Kimball. “We earmark money for emergencies—like sanitizing wipes when the H1N1 outbreak occurred and there were no funds, as well as for last-minute educational field trips,” Kimball said.

Overall, parent group leaders indicated that they are responding to the new challenges as best they can. “Since bigger budget cuts have been happening more and more each year, principals sometimes feel as if PTO should pick up the void with everything they need help with. Our PTO has always been a huge supporter of our school, and we plan to continue to do so,” wrote Valentina Jackson, president of the Wrens (Ga.) Elementary PTO. “We are always looking for better ways to do our job.”

How Parent Groups Make Spending Decisions


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