PTO President Sarah Thompson is proud to tell others about the relationship she has with her principal. Dawn Carrigan of Longfellow Elementary School in Portland, Maine, meets with Thompson monthly, attends board meetings, and speaks on a timely topic at each general PTO meeting. She pitches in to work at all events, encourages teachers to support the parent group, and, while she definitely speaks her mind, she also respects the goals of the PTO. Since Carrigan’s arrival at the school three years ago, PTO meeting attendance has shot up, Thompson says.

“I talk to a lot of other PTO leaders who say, ‘You’re lucky! Our principal won’t even get up to speak at meetings.’ I don’t know what to tell them,” confides Thompson. “I think it’s all in the dynamics of the person.”

The PTO-principal relationship does benefit from a principal who is naturally enthusiastic and supportive of the PTO. But there are ways to improve a mediocre relationship and make a good one even better, say PTO presidents and principals. Take the right steps, and you can make inroads even with the most uncooperative principals.

Match Made in Heaven?

In theory, there shouldn’t be friction between principals and parent groups. After all, reams of research show that parent involvement helps kids succeed in school. And principals and parents always say they want the best for their schools and the children. Same goals, right?

“There is no way that schools can provide everything we need to provide,” says Carrigan. “There is a wealth of talent and resources that parents can give, and I’ve always worked to foster that relationship.”

Paul Young, principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, agrees. “It should be a principal’s priority to work with the PTO or PTA. We’re trying so hard to get parent involvement, and here’s an established group ready to work with you. If you don’t want to give them the time of day, how can you have parent involvement?” he says.

The problems come when the priorities of principals and parents don’t match. Or when one entity doesn’t feel the respect of the other.

Communication Is Key

Principals and parent-group members agree the most important factor in good principal-PTO relationships is communication. Good communication goes beyond inviting the principal to your meetings. It means getting together at the beginning of the year to review goals and checking in regularly to keep each other informed of what’s new and how things are going.

“The only problems that have occurred (between me and my parent groups) are when we didn’t have good communication ahead of time,” says Young.

Thompson says her school’s previous principal didn’t always communicate well. By contrast, Carrigan not only meets regularly with the PTO president and board, she also writes a weekly newsletter in which she incorporates PTO information. And at each PTO meeting she spends 30 minutes discussing a topic such as learning assessments or how to make the most of parent-teacher conferences.

Carol Whitcomb says she runs “everything” by her principal. “I meet with her every Friday for 15 to 30 minutes.” Whitcomb, PTO president at Black Hawk Elementary in Burlington, Iowa, makes sure she doesn’t keep her principal too long. “She’s got a job to do, and we’re just a little piece of it,” says Whitcomb.

For her part, the principal recognizes that the PTO is a tool to communicate with the parents, Whitcomb says. “She comes to us for things the teachers need that aren’t in the school budget. Because we’re good at communicating back and forth with each other, we usually find the money to fund them.”

Stick to Business

Principals and parent-group presidents also agree it’s important to run meetings efficiently and stick to school business. No principal wants to spend hours sitting through a meeting that bogs down in unnecessary details.

Young insists his parent group presidents review the meeting agenda with him beforehand and limit the meeting to an hour. “If you don’t know how to run a business meeting, it can kill a group,” he says. Keep focused on the big picture, and leave the discussions of how many lollipops to order for the fair to the committees. Review Robert’s Rules of Order, know your bylaws, and have reports ready and copies of the agenda available.

“If you get a big group to your first meeting and you don’t conduct business well, they’re not going to come back,” he says. Your principal also might lose his enthusiasm if the meetings don’t get any better.

Another problem for principals is parents who bring personal agendas to the meetings. “I have a cardinal rule: Stay away from personal agendas,” says Carrigan. “Anything we talk about at the PTO meeting is about the school as a whole. It’s not a problem-solving session about school issues or individuals.” To build a strong partnership with the principal, you must respect his boundaries. He can’t discuss these issues in public, and neither should you. And if you do, you’re not likely to get much cooperation from the principal or any of the school staff.

Parent group presidents’ pet peeve is principals who don’t support the PTO and its events. Most principals are overworked, but despite his busy schedule, Young can’t understand why a principal would shun parent group events.

“They provide me with an opportunity to meet parents informally, while I’m washing dishes or cooking spaghetti,” he says. “When parents and the principal are involved at meetings, events, and committees, it’s easier for me and my staff to put a name to a face. Then when you call us about your child, it’s easier to have a conversation, and that’s ultimately better for your child.”

Respect Boundaries

Problems can also occur between principals and PTOs when one doesn’t respect the other’s efforts or authority. Whitcomb says her relationship with her principal works because they appreciate each other’s contributions to the same goal. “We are all trying to work together to help the kids. She understands that, I understand that. She knows what things we do that are beneficial to her school, and we know she’s the boss of her school.”

As a principal, Carrigan says it’s important to set boundaries between what decisions parents can make and what decisions the school should make. She gives free rein over where parents can volunteer at the school: mentoring, tutoring, helping with maintenance, providing snacks, you name it. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” she says.

But when parents are heavily invested in the school, they often want a say in how things are run, she says. While she understands their thinking, she does draw the line. One example is choosing teachers. “It’s non-negotiable. Parents don’t get to choose their children’s teachers. We have a system for putting children in classrooms, and this is not an area that parents can have a voice in.”

Internal policy and procedure questions are best brought up in private with a principal or a member of the school board.

On the other hand, one PTO president from Connecticut says the principal, who has been at the school a year, is too involved in how the PTO runs its business. While he’s easy to talk with and encourages communication, he also oversteps his bounds, making decisions that she feels aren’t his to make.

For example, he insisted on being a member of the PTO nominating committee. Although the committee had plenty of candidates to work with, the principal decided he wanted more new blood and began calling parents to his office for interviews. This woman, who had been next in line for president, suddenly found herself off the final voting slate.

“I just went to the PTO and told them the nominating committee was putting out a slate and I’m not on it. I said I wasn’t going to play games; I just wanted what the PTO wanted,” she recalls. In the end three members, including her, were nominated from the floor, and she won.

In another incident, the principal attended a committee meeting and gave the committee permission to act on its decisions without reporting to the board first, flouting the group’s bylaws.

She has since met with the principal to work things out and told him she and the board are ready and willing to meet with him regularly to work on their relationship. “If we can’t work together, the school is going to suffer,” she says.

While the details differ from case to case, this principal made a common mistake: He tried to micromanage the parent group. Principals who do this may be well-meaning, but they throw up a huge roadblock to parent involvement. Parents who might be great leaders become much less likely to volunteer if as PTO officers they are little more than figureheads. Similarly, if creative ideas are often quashed by an overly involved principal, the spirit of involvement quickly fades for even the most enthusiastic volunteers.

Another area where principals and parent groups clash is over how PTO money is spent. Whereas many principals welcome the funds parent groups contribute, sometimes a conflict arises in how money should be spent. Though Thompson’s view is that Carrigan “knows that the PTO raised the money, and we can spend it how we like,” Carrigan says she recently declined the PTO’s offer to pay for a full-time staff member to run the technology lab the PTO had funded. The school budget alone could not cover a full-time post.

“It was nice of them, but I told them they couldn’t because that person would not be a staff member but an employee of the PTO. It was a boundary issue,” she says.

Liz Fox, president of the Dolphin Boosters at the Yaquina View Elementary School in Newport, Ore., has another point of view. Her school’s previous principal only paid attention to his parent group when he wanted it to buy big-ticket items for the school, she says. The Boosters’ desire to improve the science program by sponsoring a science fair and providing science curriculum assistance, mentors, and equipment fell on deaf ears, she says.

Undaunted, the group kept presenting its case to him respectfully but persistently. “In the end we let him bring it up as if it were his idea,” she says, and the program went ahead.

Dealing With the Worst Case

The fact is that despite best intentions and repeated efforts, parent groups do occasionally run into principals who do their best to thwart involvement. Whether it’s by taking control of the PTO reins or setting regulations that make involvement difficult, these principals seem to long for a school devoid of pesky parents.

What’s a PTO leader to do in this situation?

The answer begins with education. Some problem principals simply don’t know better.

Does your district or state measure schools by test results? Then share articles about how involvement raises scores; you’ll find loads of research on the PTOtoday.com Web site. Is discipline a problem at your school? Research shows that involvement reduces discipline problems. Make sure your principal knows these results.

Are there active PTOs in your area doing great things for schools? Share the news with your principal. Slowly but surely let your principal know that your goals are aligned and that an active, independent PTO is a great step toward those goals.

After education comes activism.

When a principal refuses to allow parents in the classrooms or balks at changing a policy parents feel strongly about, it’s time to marshal your resources and go over the principal’s head, says Sue Ferguson, chairperson of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education in Fairfax, Va.

“There’s always strength in numbers. If the principal has closed the door and doesn’t want to listen, find other families, get together, form a plan, and go to the superintendent or school board,” she says, adding, “Principals sometimes forget they’re public schools.”

It’s important to carry out this process in a professional way. It starts by talking to the principal, then talking some more. Next comes speaking quietly to supervisors such as the superintendent. Raising a public uproar is, in essence, unleashing your biggest weapon. Do it only in the most important cases and only after you’ve exhausted other avenues.

When you do take this route, the more people who know that there is a group of parents who want to help but who are being stymied, the better. It’s difficult for a principal to justify why he is smothering involvement when every bit of research shows that involvement is so valuable.

The Connecticut parent group president is hopeful that the relationship with her principal will improve and suggests that when parent groups and principals have difficulties, they should keep working to solve them. “There are going to be issues, but they’re not insurmountable as long as we keep talking about them,” she says.

Tips for PTOs

  • Appreciate. Appreciate. Your great school depends on your great principal. Thank him for his efforts.
  • Meet with the principal at the beginning of the year to set goals and review expectations. Then, meet regularly to go over general meeting agenda, touch base on issues concerning the school and PTO, and compare goals.
  • Invite the principal to attend board and general meetings.
  • Principals are busy people. Try to set a regular meeting time to talk business—and stick to the subject and time allowed.
  • Run PTO meetings efficiently, and give the principal an opportunity to speak.
  • Treat the principal with respect. The parent group may raise money and donate countless volunteer hours, but in the end the principal’s job is to run the school. If a disagreement escalates to a superintendent or school-board level, take care to maintain that respect. You have the right to disagree; exercise it with professionalism. After all, when this dispute is over you still have to work with the principal.
  • Do a little teaching. If your principal is less than supportive of parent involvement, take the time to educate. Research shows clearly that parent involvement raises test scores and reduces discipline problems. Convince your principal of this, and you’ll have a new ally.
  • When necessary, take the next step. If you’ve done your best to work with a principal and you still hit a brick wall, consider taking your case to the superintendent or school board.

Tips for Principals

  • Appreciate. Appreciate. Your great school depends on your great parent group. Thank your group members for all of their efforts.
  • Allow PTOs to work independently. Allowing PTO leaders to do their jobs frees you up to do yours and encourages even more valuable parent involvement.
  • Attend meetings and PTO events. Make a special effort to have a presence at public events attended by a large number of parents, such as field days and pizza nights.
  • Encourage teachers to participate in parent group programs and meetings. Make parent group support part of your evaluation process, if possible.
  • Set aside time to meet with the parent group president and other board members to review goals and anticipate and resolve conflicts.