Whether you’re a newly elected officer or you’re coming back for another year on the PTO board, the transition from one group of leaders to another can be tough to navigate.
There’s a lot to do to prepare for the new school year. Where do you start? How can you build on the great work the previous leaders did without feeling pressured to follow in their footsteps? Follow these proven tips and advice from seasoned PTO board members to help you get ready for what’s ahead.
Consult the Experts
First of all, make sure the outgoing board members don’t disappear; you’ll need them. Amy Driehorst, president of the Jackman Road Elementary PTO in Temperance, Mich., suggests conducting an executive board meeting with both the outgoing and incoming officers to talk and share information. “Usually, everyone knows one another, but not always,” Driehorst says. “If someone has a question, it’s helpful if they actually know how to get in touch with their predecessor.”
Andrea Ptak, secretary of the PTA at Graham Hill Elementary in Seattle, says her group organized a workshop in the fall for new and returning board members during which they distributed a handbook for each office. “That was very helpful,” she says.
Some groups find it useful to have incoming and outgoing officers meet twice, immediately after the election and again right before the new school year begins. At the first meeting, outgoing board members can fill in new leaders on the rest of the year’s activities. The new leaders can then shadow the old leaders on their way out, giving them an idea of what to expect the next year. A second meeting gives new board members an opportunity to ask more specific questions after they have reviewed transition materials and started planning their own agendas.
An informal setting like a restaurant or someone’s home can turn these gatherings into social occasions that encourage personal connections. Once everyone is on friendly terms, it will be easier for new officers to call upon their predecessors to answer questions throughout the year.
Just as important as forming good relationships is obtaining key information about how the group works. Make sure to ask the outgoing board to share any helpful materials in both print and electronic formats. Your transition checklist should include:
A copy of the bylaws
Roles and responsibilities of the different board positions
A list of key contacts for the school district
A list of parent volunteers (and their contact information)
Copies of meeting minutes
The previous year’s budget
Bank account numbers and balances
Computer files for welcome packets and parent handbooks
Templates for stationery and invoices
Binders and/or checklists for annual events and meetings
A list of preferred vendors and partners
A copy of school policies
“I would definitely ask about any policy issues, like making sure there is a custodian on-site for evening events, needing a staff person in the cafeteria kitchen if food prep is involved, etc., that need to be dealt with well in advance of an event,” Ptak says.
Ptak is also a big advocate of keeping track of events and programs in well-organized binders. As secretary, she kept a binder with meeting minutes and correspondence as well as important details about every annual school event. This information included job lists and responsibilities like decorating, concessions, DJs, flyers, permission slips, and menus. There was also a section for past fundraisers, with information on what worked and what didn’t.
“Having this information all in one place made for a smooth transition for new board members and kept us from having to reinvent the wheel every year,” Ptak says.
One transition that is very important to make immediately after the election of new officers is between the outgoing and incoming treasurers. The new treasurer needs to be added to the bank account. Otherwise, if for any reason the outgoing treasurer becomes unavailable when her term ends, board members can find themselves in a bind if they can’t access funds. The treasurer handoff should also include a budget review and an overview of reliable vendors and fundraisers. The new board should also consider an audit of the accounts at this time. Audits are a good way to learn the overall fiscal strengths and weaknesses of the group.
Driehorst concurs. “I first joined the board as treasurer,” she says. “The biggest challenges there revolved around wanting to make sure I knew when to meet with the accountant for taxes and making sure all the legal aspects were taken care of. It wasn’t a matter of communication, just learning something entirely new.”
Prepare Leaders for New Roles
One of the most effective ways to ensure a smooth transition from one board to the next is to create positions designed to transfer experience and talent. Many parent groups have offices with two-year terms, which allow leaders to share their expertise and groom their replacements before they move on from the board.
“Our terms are one year, with a limit of two consecutive years. Typically, people automatically are elected to the second term if they want it,” Driehorst says. “What’s really helpful is when some of the positions, especially president and treasurer, begin their terms on opposite years. That way, you always have someone who has been intimately involved in the workings of the organization on the board.”
Expect Some Changes
Equally important to how the outgoing board can help a new board get up to speed is thinking through how the old guard will step aside and create space for new and innovative ideas from the newly elected members. It can be difficult to let go of a role you’ve played or a goal you’ve set and make room for new ideas. Likewise, it can be awkward for an incoming president and her team to make positive changes if the former board members maintain too big a presence after their term ends.
“I think it’s important to set up your own procedures that work for you and get your PTA in the swing of doing things your way, as opposed to the way the person in your position previously did things,” says PTA member Amanda Rodriguez of Deer Crossing Elementary in New Market, Md.
It’s important for the president to set a tone of diplomacy from the top. It may be helpful to have conversations with outgoing leaders about what’s expected of them before problems occur. If previous board members come to meetings and dominate discussions or continuously shoot down new ideas, the president may need to find a specific way for past leaders to contribute. Ideally, former leaders will be asked to help with a few tasks where they have valuable experience, and new leaders will feel supported rather than intimidated.
Remember that ultimately you all have the same goal—to do what is best for the children, the teachers, the parents, and the community. Your approach may vary, but the intent is the same. The next school year may seem like a long way off, but it’s not. This is the perfect time for outgoing and newly elected boards to work together to plan another successful school year. And with a little thinking ahead, you can do just that.