From low turnout to conflicts with the principal, our PTO answer guide will help make your whole year great.

by Craig Bystrynski


1. Event Attendance Is Low

Communicate better. To make sure your message gets through, communicate it in as many different ways as possible: flyer, school sign, calendar in the local newspaper, newsletter, etc. For each event, set a goal of communicating it at least three times—a month in advance, a week in advance, and the week of the event—in at least three ways.

Survey kids/parents on events they want. It’s time to stop using your instincts and find out what people want. Hand out surveys in person, and have people fill them out on the spot. Do it at school events, at the pickup and drop-off spot, when people pick up fundraising orders, etc. And don’t forget to ask the kids what they want, too. You’ll be surprised at the ideas.

Get kids excited. When a child is enthusiastic about attending an event or activity, the adults will come, too. Plus, you have a direct communication line to children and a less direct link to adults.

Eliminate barriers. Lots of socioeconomic barriers can cut attendance. Consider providing translation services, baby-sitting, car-pooling. Schedule events that appeal to diverse cultures. Sharing nights such as a cultural “talent” night or pot luck can help build community.

Don’t stall out! Reenergize involvement for the second half of the year

2. Meeting Attendance Is Low

Involve the kids. Have them sing songs, perform skits, hold an art show. Enlist a different class to participate before each meeting. The surest way to get parents to turn out is to see their children’s work.

Make them shorter. Set a one-hour time limit. Write an agenda for meetings and stick to it. Do detail work in committees, not on the floor of a general meeting. Allow people to speak only when recognized by the chair, and don’t allow cross-talk. It’s a matter of taking control.

Run them at different times. Experiment. Try morning meetings, evening meetings, meetings before school events. Consider different locations, too. One group significantly boosted attendance by moving meetings to a roller-skating rink. Parents met while kids skated.

Discuss key school topics (curriculum). If your school has key issues that parents are concerned about, address them in a forum before or after your meeting. Topics such as standardized testing, school class size and overcrowding, and the new math curriculum, for example, can attract parents.

Reassess your priorities. Parents will only spend so much time volunteering at the school. You have lots of things for them to do that have more immediate impact than attending a meeting. So consider refocusing your efforts on building your volunteer base or improving attendance at family events rather than at meetings.

3. Everyone Is Burned Out

Scale back. When everybody’s feeling the load, don’t plow ahead. It’s better to run a few terrific activities that make everybody happy than many mediocre ones that make everybody miserable.

Focus exclusively on building parent involvement. The number one cure for burnout: fresh troops. Building parent involvement from the ground up will allow your group to accomplish more than you can imagine. This may mean scrapping most of your other activities, but it will be worthwhile in the long term.

Reinvigorate. Schedule an activity or two where group members can relax together and bond, perhaps an adults-only outing. Don’t just work all the time. It’s OK to have fun, and it’s OK to spend money on a social occasion just for your group. Big nonprofits do it all the time. They know by relaxing a little now, you’re likely to accomplish a lot more later.

4. Fundraising Fell Short

Add additional fundraisers. This might be your first inclination, but it should be your last resort. If parents (customers) or volunteers are burned out, you’ll only make matters worse. And more time on fundraising means less on building involvement and other key work.

Evaluate your systems to improve sales. Did you get the word out well? Were things well organized? Was it easy to buy, or might you have made things too hard on your customers? A well-organized, customer-friendly approach makes a difference in sales, whether you run a product fundraiser, an auction, or anything else.

Reevaluate your remaining fundraisers. If you’ve run the same fundraiser several times and returns are diminishing, it’s time for a change. And if your next fundraiser is similar to the one that flopped, definitely choose something else. How? Select a few good options, then survey parents about what they will support.

Cut expenses to match your new financial constraint. Don’t be afraid to cut back. Keep in mind that building parent involvement should be your number one goal. From that, all good things spring. Too much focus on fundraising can actually hurt your efforts to achieve future goals.

5. The Principal Is a Pain

Show him studies on the benefits of parent involvement. Principals are under tremendous pressure to improve test scores, and strong parent involvement can help him do that. Also, check to see whether the school district has a policy on parent involvement. Many do.

Address turf issues head on. The biggest fear any principal has of parent involvement is that it will stop him from doing his job in the way he thinks it should be done. Let him know you have the same goals—a better school and a better education for the children. Tell him you know it’s the principal’s job to run the school. But it’s the parent group’s role to create the kind of community where the principal and staff can do their best work.

Work with him to set priorities. Find common ground. Start with small initiatives on which you can both agree. In a fractured relationship, it’s important to build trust. When you speak to the principal about this, be an active listener and an assertive speaker. Write out what you want to communicate beforehand, if necessary. Or take along someone who will say it better.

Take your case to the superintendent (or even the school board). This is a last resort. You don’t build trust with someone by going over his head. And going public will almost certainly split your school. But if it’s already split, this might be worth considering. Keep in mind that school officials most likely will support the principal—after all, the superintendent hired him—unless you have a strong case supported by a large number of parents.

6. The Teachers Don’t Help

Focus on specific tasks. What is it that you would like teachers to do for you? Is it passing out flyers in a timely manner? Communicating messages to children? Perhaps responding to surveys and offering input? Be specific in asking for what you want from teachers, and choose things that help you meet your goals. Simply wishing they were more supportive or helpful won’t advance your cause.

Talk to teachers individually to express your support for them. Often, the problem between parent group and teachers is a communication gap. Approach teachers directly and individually to express support for them. Indicate you have the same goals—helping the children and the school—and ask them how you can help them achieve those goals. The flip side of that is: “Yes, I can do that for you. Now will you do this to help us help you?”

Initiate programs that directly help teachers. It’s key to make sure teachers see how they benefit from what the parent group does. Don’t let them wonder; toot your own horn about how you buy classroom supplies, provide aides, supervise lunch periods, and in general create an atmosphere that helps them do their jobs better.

Enlist the help of the principal, if possible. Attitude generally starts from the top. If the principal is enthusiastic about parent involvement, he can make a big difference in rallying the staff. But even then, you’ve got to win the support of the teachers to make it effective. If they help because they’ve been ordered to, that will last as long as your current project and not much longer.

7. Meetings Get Disrupted

Create an agenda and stick to it. One of the most common reasons groups go from informal meetings to well-organized ones is to keep the meetings from being hijacked by one or two members. To start, review the basics of Roberts Rules of Order. Creating an agenda is the first one, and a key to good meetings.

Allow people to speak only when recognized by the chair. This is how you keep your meeting on topic. Require people to address their comments to the chair. Don’t allow cross-talk—two people in the audience directing their comments to each other while the rest of you are forced to listen.

Limit response and discussion times. Set a time limit, say two minutes each, for people to express their opinions on controversial matters. That way you avoid the circular filibusters that make meetings deteriorate. When discussion becomes repetitive, ask for a motion for a vote.

Make a list of “courtesy rules.” Pass it out before each meeting and remind people of them when the meeting begins. This establishes rules for the group without singling out your problem person. And as you use them, they will become habit for everyone.

Refer controversial matters to committee. Don’t try to solve every problem at your general meeting. If there’s strong disagreement, appoint a committee to study the topic.

Confront your problem person. Do this only as a last resort and never in public. Be supportive, not confrontational, and don’t do it when emotions run high. Tone: “I can tell something’s troubling you.”

8. We’re Disorganized

Open lines of communication. Good communication keeps you from duplicating effort and helps you maximize your resources. Set up a regular, formal communication system among your key players. The method doesn’t matter—weekly meetings, emails, an online chat. Just make it regular, and make sure you have broad participation.

Delegate. The second most common organizational problem is a bottle-neck caused by someone trying to do too much or given too much to do. Look carefully at your processes and activities for bottle-necks. Then, uncork them by dividing the tough jobs into more pieces.

Consolidate. Committees are wonderful for dividing workload. But sometimes a specific problem requires a specific person to address it. For example, say you have several events that require printed programs or other material. Appointing a single person to work with the printer might be more effective than having several people from several committees share the job.

Be less ambitious and more successful. Run smaller events until you get some successes under your belt. Run fewer events but run them better. You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to do it all at once. The best way to create momentum is to build on your successes—not apologize for your failures.

9. We’ve Grown and Can’t Keep Up

Spend time on organizational issues. Problems occur when groups grow large but continue to function as if they’re small. Larger groups need better defined roles for officers and committee chairs. They need specific and regular lines of communication. And they need formal training for new leaders. Appoint a committee, with a strong leader, to work specifically on these issues. In the long run, working them out is a lot more important than how well the book fair goes or how you do on your next fundraiser.

Create more offices. Sometimes, very successful groups get too big for one person or one six-person board to administer. Creating the offices of co-president, co-vice president, etc. divides the workload and gives people training for leadership positions. Note, though, that the duties of the offices (president vs. co-president, for example) must be well defined to avoid confusion.

Focus on communication. This falls under organizational issues, but it’s also the quickest short-term fix to bring things under control. Set up regular meetings with your key leaders aimed specifically at bringing everybody up to date. Create a regular (weekly, if necessary) reporting system where officers and committee chairs each write an email outlining their activities. If needed, appoint a communications chair to be responsible for internal communications. His job would be to keep in touch with key leaders and create written summaries of their activities.

10. We Have a Bad Reputation

Let people know you’ve put your problem in the past. Whatever it was, publicize very specifically how you’ve addressed the problem. Was it a money issue? Show how you’ve put safeguards in place, purchased insurance, etc., to protect the funds you raise. Repeat this message frequently and in many different types of communications.

Reaffirm your mission. At every opportunity, assert your renewed focus on serving the school and the kids. This is the strength of your group and the common bond with all parents who have children at the school.

Get strong endorsements. If possible, get the principal, teachers, parents, superintendent, etc. to praise your group. A simple endorsement from a third party can be powerful in letting people know you’ve turned the corner. Include endorsements on your flyers, newsletter, etc.

Get new leaders, if necessary. Current leaders might be dedicated to making things better. But sometimes, only a new face can truly change your image.

11. We Have a Serious Split

Look for common ground. Appoint a committee from the different camps to search for compromises. Pick the most reasonable people, not the most adamant, from each side.

Hire a mediator. If your group is at stake, it’s well worth the investment. Ask the school district to supply a mediator. Or try to find a low-cost mediator with experience, perhaps a retired principal.

Start from scratch. Reconstruct your activities from the ground up based only on goals you can agree on. Let the parent group be neutral ground, and let the political battles be fought in another arena.


# granger 2008-12-31 14:45
Very nice article
# Martha Young 2009-01-28 23:42
This is a great article to remind us of things we often forget in our rush to get "things" done. Thanks for slowing me down! I work with several Parent Groups ( 7) section of our city an each has its own personality. I must resist the temptation to compare them. (5 elementary and 2 High Schools). it is quite a challenge, but worth every minute!

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