Parochial School: Challenging Year Ends With Growth


PTO Today's 2007 Outstanding Parent Group at a Private School began its summer with a large financial burden, low morale, no board, and an uncertain future; with an emphasis on efficient planning and making involvement fun, leaders met those challenges and thrived.

by Emily Graham


Holy Family Catholic School Home and School Association

Location: Rockford, Ill.
Community: population 155,138; urban
School size: 497 students, grades K-8
Annual budget: $30,000

When the parent group at Holy Family Catholic School in Rockford, Ill., was faced with a major financial challenge and a shortage of leaders, it could have been the group’s undoing. Instead, the Home and School Association embraced the change, adapted to the new demands, and emerged from the year stronger than ever.

Holy Family’s finances are inseparable from the local economy, and as one after another of Rockford’s tool and die manufacturers closed down over the past decade, the school has felt the aftershocks. Many people left Rockford to find jobs, the neighborhoods served by the school had fewer families with children, and enrollment declined. Church contributions fell as the economy slowed, and in return the school received less financial support from the church.

In spring 2006, when the church determined that a planned tuition hike wasn’t enough to cover expenses, the parish finance council directed Holy Family’s Home and School Association to contribute $20,000 directly to the school to balance the budget. Many parents feared they’d have to take on more fundraising to make the contribution.

“We thought, How much more can we give? How much more can we do?” recalls treasurer Phyllis Smith. “We were at the point of exhaustion.”

Others bristled at the finance council telling the HSA how to spend its hard-earned money, according to principal Tony Smerko. Instead of deciding how to spend the funds with school input, the group would turn over the money to the school to be used as needed. Last year, it was designated for emergency maintenance, such as a boiler breakdown.

With this challenge given to them near the end of the 2005-06 school year, the officers slated to serve the next year stepped down. The future of the HSA remained unclear until the summer, when Smith and Nancy Battel talked on the bleachers at their sons’ baseball games and decided to serve as officers. Battel, who had been treasurer the year before, became president.

When Battel and Smith met for coffee with newly recruited vice president Kathy Koscak and secretary Denise Dobrowolski, the conversation focused on how change can be good for an organization. They welcomed the opportunity to rethink routines, and decided to focus their efforts on communicating clearly, working efficiently, boosting the ranks of volunteers, and emphasizing the fun in parent involvement. The group rebuilt relationships by listening to what parents had to say, sharing financial records, and explaining the new financial system. Early on, leaders decided to ease the pressure on parents by withholding the HSA’s spring 2006 contribution to the school until the next fall, to be included in the $20,000 budget allocation.

As they talked up the changes, the women frequently acknowledged the contributions of past officers, who remained active. “Nobody bailed out from volunteering, but it was a rough start,” Battel says. “We had to earn some trust back and heal some feelings, and I think we did. I hope we did.”

The officers pledged to work smarter, not harder. The first step was to streamline fundraisers and focus the group’s efforts on those that were most profitable.

The Lenten dinner didn’t garner enough volunteers, so the parent group considered canceling it. Before taking that step, officers informed parents in a school newsletter that they might drop the event and asked for input. When no one responded, they canceled the event and channeled the event coordinator’s efforts elsewhere.

“If people aren’t coming, we can’t get a volunteer, and we’re losing money, then it makes you stop and think,” Battel says. “We just really slowed down to think, We don’t have to keep doing these things. It’s kind of common sense, but sometimes you’re so busy you don’t have time for common sense.”

When no one stepped forward to coordinate the Family Fun Night, Battel broke up the event into four segments, making each chairperson responsible for a single area. More parents were recruited for shorter shifts. The strategy paid off, and the event’s profit increased 250 percent from the previous year.

Reducing the burden on volunteers helped keep from scaring off potential new volunteers, Koscak notes. “Our biggest thing is ‘This is Home and School, this isn’t a full-time job,’ ” she says. “It should be enjoyable and it shouldn’t be so much that you’re completely burned out by the time you’re done with your activity.”

That approach to volunteering is vital to involving two-income and single-parent families, Smerko says. “Our Home and School people say ‘Just give whatever you can, whether it’s a little at home or a lot during the school day.’ ”

Because the school didn’t have any unexpected expenses last year, it used the funds in much the same way the HSA had in other years, replacing old desks, upgrading computers, and buying tools for resource programs, among other things.

The group has not only survived but thrived because parents put the interests of children first, says Koscak. “The bottom line is, we all know that everything we do is for the children.”

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