A parent group president reflects on lessons learned during her term in office and offers down-to-earth suggestions and advice.

by Beth Donofrio


Quite unlike the carefully navigated course charted for years by high-profile candidates like Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, my life in politics began without much forethought. The numbers of people we serve are disparate, as well; I answered to 300 parents, our nation’s president leads a diverse population of more than 300 million. The acronyms of our organizations differ also: HSA (Home and School Association) as opposed to USA.

Of course, my words and actions never generated enough interest to find their way onto the front page of a newspaper or into Jay Leno’s monologue, although they may have made it to the car line on occasion. And obviously, no one’s life or livelihood depended upon my decisions. However, as the days of my term ticked by, I did come to realize that the work I did, and especially the way I did it, affected people for good or for ill in a very real way.

After a year of service, I finally got a handle on how best to perform my duties, maximizing my positive impact while minimizing the negative. However, unlike the resident of the White House, I don’t have three more years to put into practice all that I learned in my first 12 months on the job. I am now a past president, and like all former leaders, my next job is to write my memoirs.

I am aware that the general public is not quite as interested in my early childhood in Quincy, Mass., or how much I spend to have my hair cut as they are with regard to the national candidates. Thus, I have condensed my book-length memoirs into this article.

Chapter 1: The Inaugural Address

“Ask not what your school can do for you, ask what you can do for your school.” With apologies to President Kennedy, who took volunteering seriously—and so should you.

The PTO president needs to involve as many parents as possible to serve at their children’s school. Unequivocally, and academically, socially, and behaviorally, schools and kids with involved parents outperform schools and kids with uninvolved parents. Period. Get that message out to your families first, then follow up with fun ways they can get involved.

Some volunteer jobs are more obvious than others. It’s easy to see the mother manning a booth at the fall festival, counting laps at the jogathon, or setting up the book fair. Make sure people know about the less-than-obvious jobs, as well, especially those that can be done from home or outside of school hours. Do gift cards need to be picked up for teacher appreciation week? Do phone calls need to be made to get gift certificates? Does baking need to be done for next week’s talent show and dinner? Does the bulletin board need to be redecorated?

Chapter 2: The Cabinet

I was fortunate that the outgoing president made herself readily available to answer any questions I had. After my induction as president, she functioned as the adviser to the board; with five years of experience in multiple roles, she was a wealth of information. Whenever anyone with past experience offered me advice, I listened carefully. Because these women had children at the school, they really wanted the school to succeed and truly wanted to help. They were a godsend.

I invited all my board members and their families to a get-to-know-you summer cookout at my house. My first order of business was learning about the women with whom I’d be working. No one bit me. Next on the agenda, I began researching other PTOs online. It didn’t matter the size or location of the school. I just wanted to find out how other successful groups worked.

Chapter 3: Leadership

I worked hard on the agenda for our first meeting. What ultimately became second nature by May took hours in August. That preparation time was vital to building my confidence, however, and our meeting went well.

Once I was prepared, I was ready to take the lead. I knew I was part of a great team of women who were all competent in their roles. My job was to work with these women in doing our best for the school. The president does not dictate how the secretary of agriculture should run his department. He does not decide Supreme Court rulings or listen to individual cases. Likewise, I didn’t order the books for our book fair, buy the trinkets for our Christmas Shoppe, gather the prizes for our golf tournament, or call the caterers for any of our functions. I organized the overall actions of our group and worked on solving problems that came our way. I assisted these women whenever they asked. Best of all, I learned and fine-tuned my skills in communication, organization, motivation, and appreciation.

Chapter 4: The Economy

“Voodoo economics.” That’s what President Bush (the first one) famously called President Reagan’s financial policies when the two were competing for the 1980 Republican nomination. No president wants to be accused of practicing black magic, which is one reason having a strong system in place to keep track of your finances is key. That means creating a budget, balancing the checking account every month, and performing an annual audit.

Encourage the old and new treasurers to spend some time together going over budgets and protocols. Ideally, a procedures manual should be handed down from one treasurer to the next, with organized budget reports and a cost breakdown for each event. This is especially important because short terms of office and the ensuing turnover result in new, inexperienced people planning and purchasing each year.

Chapter 5: Education

Lead with your strengths. Whatever your passion, bring it to your job as president. As a former teacher, one of my favorite jobs as HSA president was organizing educational events. The highlight was our Family Reading Night.

We invited local celebrities to read, and I can’t imagine that any future resident of the White House would be more excited to meet the prime minister of the United Kingdom than I was to meet our town mayor. He even called me at home and left a message with his home phone number so I could call him back! Which I did!

It was a thrill to know the mayor was expecting, and would actually answer, my call. In addition to the mayor, we had the high school football coach who had played NFL football, and we were able to snag a high school student who has received national awards and been on the cover of a Weekly Reader publication for his work with sea turtles.

Earlier in the year, we kicked off our book fair by purchasing reading response journals for every student in the school and inviting the local minor league baseball mascot, Ralli Gator, to our school to help pass out the books to the kids. Ralli came, and again I couldn’t have been more excited than when I saw this giant, fuzzy, bright-green alligator, even if Tom Brady had walked into our courtyard. We reciprocated the kindness of the baseball team in lending us their mascot by organizing a day at the ballpark for our families that spring.

Chapter 6: Immigration

Remember your new families. Set up a welcoming committee to help them adjust to life at your school. One longtime mother at our school who is a former HSA board member is organizing an ambassador program that will link established, involved families with the new kids on the block. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call to say “We’re going to the family picnic, would you like to meet us there?” to make a school feel like a community.

Chapter 7: Social Security

Don’t forget your old-timers, either. Reach out especially to those who have organized events in the past and ask for tips. Get the scoop on who supplied the dunk tank for the fall festival, what restaurant they used to cater the talent show dinner, and where they ordered their balloons. It will make your job much easier if you don’t have to start every project from scratch, and most people will be flattered that you’re seeking their advice.

Chapter 8: Health Care

Get a checkup twice a year. Ask parents how you’re doing. Make available a short survey that asks what your group is doing well and what you need to improve. Discuss the results with your board, and work to implement any changes that will strengthen your group and improve the overall well-being of your school.

Chapter 9: Defense

It is inevitable that you will feel personally attacked at times. No matter how hard you try to placate and please everyone, it just cannot be done. Because most personality types who are willing to run for president are accustomed to hard work and its resultant success, it’s difficult to accept that some people will be unhappy with you and your performance. Resolve to do your best each day and to treat all you encounter with courtesy. If you mess up, take responsibility and apologize. Strive to avoid gossip. Don’t call another school parent to vent, no matter how close you may be as friends. Instead, call your sister, mother, or best friend who lives as far away from you and your school as possible.

Chapter 10: Press Secretary

C.J. Cregg touted the successes of President Bartlett’s administration to the media on Wednesday night’s The West Wing. Make sure you find your inner C.J. It’s important that all parents and teachers know the great work your group does.

Most groups are fantastic at letting parents know what is coming up on the agenda. Don’t forget the flip side. In a newsletter or online, tell everyone what a great time was had at the last shindig. Include photos of the principal waving from the Christmas parade, the math teacher dressed as a pirate at the auction, or some kids surrounding a big, green, fuzzy alligator. Show off your latest purchase at your next assembly or morning gathering. Success breeds success.

Chapter 11: Presidential Perks

With all you will do in your role as president, be assured that you will not start hobnobbing with the Hollywood set who pay thousands of dollars to attend your reelection dinner. You will not relocate to a large white house with a rose garden. Handsome young Secret Service men will not protect your every move. Efficient housekeepers and sought-after chefs will not do all your cleaning and cooking.

You will, however, meet lots of new people, some of whom will remain friends even after your term of office ends. You will have input about how to improve your school. Your children will see you as a parent who cares about them and their education. You will get to know your children’s classmates and teachers better than ever before. You will learn new skills. You will feel great about yourself, knowing that you made a positive difference in the lives of children, parents, and teachers.

Chapter 12: Epilogue

When it’s all over, perhaps you will write your memoirs, which will be published and turned into a bestseller. Then Hollywood will come knocking, you’ll play yourself on the big screen, and Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck will star as your Secret Service agents. You’ll attend red carpet parties, move to a mansion, hire housekeepers and chefs, and a library will be named in your honor. If you’ve done a really, really good job, maybe Jay Leno will include you in his monologue.

Beth Donofrio is immediate past president of the Epiphany Cathedral School HSA in Venice, Fla.


# Debbie Thibault 2008-06-17 14:22
Thank you for sharing your insights! As a new president it is infinitely valuable to know what I am in for!
# Dwight Thurner 2008-10-10 20:00
A valuable writing of great insight and information! Thank you for sharing these tips with us.

God Bless You,
# Jeanette 2008-11-14 13:18
Love your attitude and humor! I have just been selected to step up as Pres. Our current one just resigned only 3 months into the school year! A little fearful as we have over 70 different nationalities in our school community. We are a private American curriculum school in the Middle East with grades Pre-K - 12th. It is good to hear encouragement through your writing, and I feel I can step up to the plate, hopefully, a little more confident. Besides, anyone from Venice FL is okay in my book! :-)

Regards from a former neighbor from Sarasota and Venice(how I miss the beaches!)

Jeanette M.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
# Ellie A. 2009-01-16 00:38
As president of my 3rd year now, it's so hard to keep everyone on task without giivng a complete itenerary. I have to do and organize just everything, with only a few officers to help and the same handful of volunteers every time. I also do membership, secretary, and collecting of the campbells labels,etc....how do I get more help>>???Everyone thinks these events just appear and run themselves...but they don't. (as you probably know) any suggestions?
# Maya 2009-06-18 20:44
From my experience as an Elementary School mom, many people in the PTO leadership simply haven't focused their efforts on getting parents involved & making the PTO a freindly group. Then they take on the same "Martyrdom" attitude as in Ellie's post. There are a lot of great ideas and suggestions out there for encouraging & maintaining involvement - read some and implement them! You should figure out what you need to do in that area before blaming people for not showing up or appearing interested.

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