Our phones have been ringing too often lately with desperate pleas from parent group leaders facing extinction.

“Our principal said he’s going to take over our group and our funds” is one version of the tale.

“Does our superintendent have final say on everything we do?” is another. (Why the principals in question almost always seem to be men is a question for another column....)

Each time I get the question, I know my answer is going to frustrate the caller. The fact is that there’s no simple solution for the parent group faced with an overbearing principal. Like it or not, principals and other schools leaders have the ability to make typical parent group functions quite difficult.

A principal cannot stop you from meeting; you have every right to meet at a local restaurant, for example. But he can prevent you from meeting at the school. He can’t stop you from holding a family night at a skating rink. But he can keep your notices out of the kids’ backpacks, making your marketing challenge quite difficult.

And if your group is an independent organization, your principal has no right to control your checkbook. That said, he may refuse to cooperate with your group if he doesn’t have some oversight of your finances. (The easiest way to tell you’re independent is to have your own employer identification number (EIN). Your bank should have your EIN; check to make sure it’s different than the school’s.)

By the same token, your parent group, if it feels it is being mistreated or undervalued by school administrators, has every right to decline requests for financial or volunteer assistance. Nothing says you have to help pay for the new textbooks, and nothing says you have to be the volunteer workforce for back-to-school night.

I compare it to the old Cold War concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD)—Russia and the US had to cooperate on nuclear treaties, because the alternative was pretty lousy for both sides. Similarly, parent groups and principals, when faced with division, need to find ways to cooperate, because the alternative is terrible for your school and your kids.

Your goal is a balanced relationship. The principal leans on his parent group to do great work building community, increasing parent involvement, and supporting teachers and the kids. The parent group leans on the principal as a trusted ally in bringing the best to your school. Powerful results follow when great teachers teach, terrific administrators administer, and empowered parent groups help create a welcoming, supportive community.

If that partnership isn’t working at your school, you’ve got to look at two key problem areas for your solutions: education and cooperation.

Your first question has to be whether your principal and administration fully understand the value of parent involvement and the long-term harm done when parent groups aren’t allowed to thrive. Have they seen the research about the effects of involvement on test scores (higher) and drop-out rates (lower) and discipline problems (fewer and less severe)? If not, help them understand. You don’t want more freedom because you’re power hungry; you want more room to operate because you know that’s best for the kids and for your school.

When parent groups are micro-managed by their school administrations, a very predictable outcome takes place. The most enthusiastic, talented leaders slowly move away from the group. Those folks will find other outlets for their volunteer efforts—perhaps the cancer society or the Girl Scouts or the like—places that will value and use their skills. While the parent group will not go away, it will instead be led more by followers, with predictable results. Parent involvement is almost always lower in schools with highly governed parent groups than in schools with empowered groups. You’ve got to nicely and persistently make that case to the powers that be.

Your second question has to center on the concerns of those placing restrictions on your group. Perhaps there’s a concern that a financial scandal (lost or stolen funds) will reflect poorly on the school or the district. While you know your parent group funds are independent, local reporters and citizens likely equate your group with the school. That’s a legitimate concern of the principal.

Similarly, the principal is likely the first person to get angry phone calls if your parent group sponsors a “Let’s learn to smoke cigarettes the right way” seminar.

What you want to do is have open conversations about the concerns and work toward solutions that will satisfy both parties, while still creating the best environment for involvement success. If it’s a financial issue, can you work together toward a set of smart controls? You don’t want the principal as a signer of your checks, but you will provide a monthly budget report and conduct an annual audit. Similar solutions can work for program and fundraising and event concerns, as well.

There is no doubt that the best parent groups are valued partners at their schools, not just rubber stamps of a principal’s wishes. Parent involvement—real, valued involvement—is worth the effort.