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.

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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.