A parent group can spend months wrestling with a dilemma, only to find out later that another PTO across town solved the same problem the year before. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to share such hard-won wisdom of experience with one another?

Well, there is. In some communities, PTOs have joined forces to form a council or congress for just such a purpose. From bimonthly informal gatherings of area PTO presidents to formal groups with elected representatives, these councils foster the exchange of ideas. They also solve problems, ranging from preventing overlapping fundraisers to commanding input into the school district’s decision-making process.

At the simplest level, these councils are a great place to trade tips. Toledo, Ohio, schools have shared advice on how to get more parents involved (hold a chili cookoff) to how to get them involved sooner (host a “boo-hoo” breakfast on the first day of school for parents dropping off their kindergartners).

In Park City, Utah, one school’s much imitated idea to increase PTO membership was to use a single form and a single payment at registration for all school activities. This avoids the problem of parents who never turn in the PTO form in the chaos of all the required forms and checks. Another shared tip was to make use of a district database to simplify the task of assembling of a school directory. “When you’re one PTO and you’ve got a problem, it’s really nice to go to a council and say, ‘We’re struggling with this,’ and they might say, ‘We had that problem and did this,’” says Elena Wakeman, chair of the Ann Arbor Public Schools PTO Council in Michigan.

And sometimes networking leads to more extensive sharing. In Park City, PTO treasurers at all the district’s schools hired an expert and got together for training in how to set up their books. In Middlebury, Conn., two schools unable to afford the cost of bringing in an author decided to split the expense.

PTOs often find their district council a good source of help with problems or a good resource for assistance, as well. “The council is pretty efficient, and it’s also widely known by parents that it’s a fairly direct avenue to the administration, to getting answers to questions,” says Sandi Welsh, chair of the PTO Advisory Council for Pomperaug Regional School District 15 in Middlebury, Conn.

For example, when several Ann Arbor elementary schools had their morning bagel fundraisers challenged as unfair competition to the schools’ own breakfast programs, the council intervened. The group is currently working out a compromise. The fundraisers would continue if the bagels are purchased from the company that provides the schools’ foodservice or are provided at a time that doesn’t conflict with the foodservice.

In Toledo, several schools expressed concern to the council about the requirement for more expensive dark socks in the district’s new uniform policy, and the uniform was changed to include white socks. And when a middle school in Middlebury wanted to honor a student who had died of cystic fibrosis with a fundraiser walkathon–something they couldn’t do as successfully on their own–other schools joined in to help. Their support included handling registration, hosting (at the high school track), gathering community donations, and selling doughnuts and pizza at the event to raise additional money.

PTO councils can even wield political clout. Last year parents expressed concern about the lack of consistent supervision at some elementary schools when they dropped off their children. “At some schools, teachers took it on themselves to be out there, but at some schools there was no one,” says Wakeman. “Bullying can happen. A kid can slip on the ice.”

The teachers’ contract did not contain specific language for supervision before and after school, as the president of the teachers’ union explained at the first meeting of Ann Arbor’s PTO council last fall. At the request of the district and the union, the council stepped in to help create a standard practice: Teachers would provide 10-minute supervision both before and after school.

Made up of about 21 schools, Ann Arbor’s council is an example of how PTOs around the country are joining forces to address local problems. “It’s a vehicle to voice concerns or opinions, a conduit for school or community issues,” says Wakeman, who traces the council’s founding to an unmet need in the 1950s for parents to communicate with one another districtwide.

Each month, representatives gather around a square table at the district office to offer input on everything from curricula to budgets to the needs of economically disadvantaged students. Especially tricky, and currently up for debate, is whether wealthier school PTOs should contribute to a district kitty to help benefit some of the less fortunate schools.

Issues addressed by the PTO Congress in Toledo don’t have easy answers either. Twenty-eight parent representatives meet with the superintendent monthly, then take new information back to their schools. “I learned that 85 percent of the budget goes to teacher salaries and benefits,” says Toledo Parent Involvement Coordinator Tracy Wieczorek, a member of the congress. “That’s not something the common parent knows, so I try to get that out there. I realize that the costs for health care benefits for teachers have drastically increased; now I can explain that to others.”

In addition to spreading information, the congress has also facilitated action related to standardized testing, seeking more tutors, and even getting PTO members to go door to door to find students who don’t attend school regularly or who are afraid to take the tests. “They know that somebody cares enough to knock on their door,” says Wieczorek.

An effective suggestion for how to deal with budget cuts also came from the council, with the no-busing area extended from those living one mile from the school to those living 1.25 miles away. And the congress rallied 2,500 parents to show their support for a $16 million funding levy, which passed despite strong opposition. “That shows the power of parents that get together,” says Wieczorek.

Park City’s PTO/PTA Council, made up of representatives from seven schools, is currently dealing with two issues: traffic and teacher evaluations. At a recent meeting, one school brought up traffic flow around the school. When a second school reported a similar concern, the superintendent brought the issue to the county transportation department, which is looking into a solution. The council is also creating a form based on parents’ requests for a formal process to offer praise or constructive criticism of individual teachers.

While money is an inescapable topic at PTO meetings, most PTO councils do not deal directly with a treasury. There is no actual exchange of funds between the council and individual school PTOs, with discussion more often focused on district budgets. But local PTOs donate money to the PTO Advisory Council in Middlebury, with the contributions spent on signs and postcards to encourage people to cast their vote on the issue of school funding referendums. “The advisory council can’t tell people how to vote, only try to get people to the polls,” says Welsh.

In Downers Grove, Ill., money flows in the opposite direction, with the District 66 PTO overseeing fundraisers such as “Market Day” and adults-only wine tasting socials. Each parent group from the district’s three schools submits a budget for approval to the district PTO, which consists of the PTO president and vice president from each school, along with principals and teacher representatives.

The presidency of the council rotates annually among the PTO presidents. The group meets bimonthly, with the focus on gathering support for umbrella fundraisers, distributing those funds, and coordinating other activities among the three schools. “We want to be sure we don’t overburden parents, and we want to be considerate of what other schools are doing,” says district PTO President Nadine Bahaveolos.

The makeup of the council is often more complex in other districts. Park City’s council includes at least one representative selected by each PTO or PTA, often the president or vice president, and then the council elects its own co-presidents and secretary. But the council in Ann Arbor, while also made up of members elected by each PTO, selects four officers: chair, treasurer, corresponding secretary, and recording secretary. And council members serve on district committees on topics such as reproductive health, finance, and student achievement. They attend separate meetings and then report back to the council.

In Middlebury, in addition to two representatives elected to the council by each PTO, membership also includes one representative each from the town’s board of selectmen and the board of education, in addition to the superintendent. Then the council elects a chair, secretary, and treasurer, and sometimes a second chair.

And in Toledo, each district learning community (which includes one high school, one junior high school, and six or seven elementary schools) has a parent advisory council (PAC) made up of all PTO officers from those schools. Then each PAC elects one representative from each grade level (high school, junior high school, elementary school) to serve on the district congress along with each learning community’s parent involvement coordinator.

Whatever their makeup and whatever they are called, meetings of PTO representatives are driven by parents’ passions. In Middlebury, the PTO Advisory Council has discussed bus transportation, cafeteria food, the physical education/health curriculum, and a new arts magnet school. But nothing has matched the intensity of responses to a revised honor roll system. “The way the honor roll was determined was changed without input from parents. It didn’t happen in a good way,” says Welsh, who remembers receiving call after call from upset parents. As a result of a recommendation from the council, the new system was scrapped, with another revision under way.

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A good source for help creating a unified PTO is the district superintendent, who can use the forum to communicate more effectively with parents. Offer the unified group as a vehicle of great benefit for all sides.

“The council members put in tireless hours devoted to the improvement of our schools through curriculum enrichment programs, fundraising efforts, and building beautification projects. They are one of the main communicators between the district and the schools and help promote the district’s programs and goals,” says George Fornero, superintendent of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Public Schools.