More on our Economy Blues fundraising survey:

Complete Survey Results | PTO Leaders’ Comments
How PTOs Are Adapting to Hard Times | Recession-busting Tips

In recent years, the Saxton Liberty Elementary PTA has raised about $50,000, a remarkable amount for a 350-student school in a rural Pennsylvania community. But this year, as the group responds to a struggling local economy, leaders expect to make about one-fifth that amount.

Saxton Liberty Elementary serves students from two communities, Saxton and Liberty Township, which have a combined population of less than 2,200. The economic situation in the one-stoplight town of Saxton, Pa., is dire. A manufacturing plant that was a major employer announced last year—just after the PTA finished its wrapping paper sale—that it was laying off more than 80 percent of its employees. This fall, the company laid off more workers, reducing the work force from about 1,000 to 65 in just a few years. Several families went from two incomes to none.

“It affects everybody,” says Robin Smith, last year’s PTA president.

Although the community, school families, and the parent group have faced new financial challenges, the downturn hasn’t dampened leaders’ spirits. If anything, the belt-tightening among Saxton Liberty families motivated the PTA to do even more for the school’s students, half of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “We just had to try to find activities that were low-cost,” Smith says. “We made sure we spent our money for the betterment of the kids.”

As the economic situation deteriorated last year, the PTA increased its membership, held more events than in years past, and completed several major projects. The group organized a movie night, a game night, and a physical fitness night, the last of which was organized using PTO Today’s free Get Movin’ Night kit and funded by a grant from the National PTA.

“We tried to get families out of the house, get them to the school,” Smith says. “Some of our parents had a bad experience when they were in school....That was a long time ago. We want them to feel welcome now.”

This year, even as the PTA is forgoing its wrapping paper sale and slashing its budget, it will still provide family fun nights, a free yearbook for every student, and a writer-in-residence program. The group’s goal is to have one or two events every month; such events are important because children in the community don’t have a lot of options for entertainment.

“It’s a half-hour drive to any recreational activity. There isn’t a lot for kids and teenagers to do. There’s no YMCA and no movie theater,” says Smith, who is no longer an officer in the PTA but is still a member even though her son has moved on to middle school. “Just because there isn’t a lot of money doesn’t mean you can’t do things. The worse the economy gets, the more the kids need to do things.”

She believes the focus on making PTA involvement fun and child-centered helped grow membership, too. Last year, the group increased its membership by 50 percent, to 75 members.

Making It Work

The Saxton Liberty parent group spent a year raising money to bring a mobile science lab, funded in part by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, to the school. Parents sold submarine sandwiches and sweatshirts to help pay for the weeklong program.

As in the past, the teachers supported the project even though it reduced classroom time. With state-mandated science tests coming up, teachers felt that students would benefit from the enrichment event.

Other activities went on as scheduled even though families were worried about the economy. The PTA sponsored a student play, a book fair, field trips, and a schoolwide family festival and funded the yearbook and scholarships for two alumni. Some projects had so many volunteers that coordinators started waiting lists. “We’ve never had a problem with volunteers,” Smith says. In fact, the group has always valued hands-on volunteer hours over donations. Grants and donations from businesses filled in the funding gaps.

This year, fundraising is expected to fall to $11,000. Current president Sharon Sitch-Brode admits that the prospect of keeping the projects going on a limited budget is daunting, but she knows the group has to keep up the pace. “It’s going to be a very trying year,” she says.

Still, PTA leaders are determined not to let programs suffer. The community has a reputation for generosity. Many families making do with less still pitch in when it’s a worthy cause, Sitch-Brode says. The group has sought support from the business community and found that no matter how hard times got, a core group of established businesses, as well as community groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, would always find a way to help them.

“If we didn’t make sure we still had field trips, some of our children would never get to go,” she says. “If we didn’t guarantee a yearbook for every child, some of our kids wouldn’t get one.”

The PTA’s major endeavor this year was a writer-in-residence program with a Florida author who got rave reviews from other parent groups. Families saved ink cartridges to earn $800 for the project. Grants from the local library and the United Way made up the difference.

Another project brought former PTA president Smith back to the school to finish something started years earlier. Parents desperately wanted to brighten an area in the aging building, which had previously been a high school. “It was dull and dungeonlike,” Smith says. The parent group scanned student artwork onto tiles to create a hallway mural.

Smith laughs about her involvement in a parent group at a school where she is no longer officially a parent. Her son, Neal, is in 7th grade; she’s a busy band parent. “I thought I was going to take a break, but I guess not,” she says, adding that she and some other parents may start a parent group at the junior and senior high schools.

Meanwhile, Sitch-Brode, who has a 5th grade son, is full of ideas for how to keep the PTA as busy as ever despite the financial challenges. She’s found support in unexpected places, including her older son’s university, which offers a free science program. She nominated a teacher for a contest sponsored by Clorox and enlisted parents to find their inner crafter to make the family festival the best it could be on a tight budget.

“We do not waste anything,” she says. “We are a very proud school.”

Getting By in a Tight Economy

Parent leaders at Saxton Liberty Elementary shared this advice about surviving when money is tight:

Stay upbeat. In times of stress, people will look to parent groups and other community organizations to remain calm and cheerful.

Communicate with teachers. With money in short supply, it’s more important than ever to spend wisely. Listen to suggestions from teachers; they know what your kids need to make their school experience the best it can be.

Reach out to families. If your school group has never collected canned goods, coats, or holiday gifts for needy families, now may be the time. Enlist teachers to make any efforts to aid a school family as discreet as possible.

Play together. Social events give parents and students a chance to unwind and forget about their troubles for a few hours.

Maintain traditions. You may have a smaller budget, but it’s important to keep well-loved events going, even if they are scaled down.

Get creative. Make the spring carnival festive without spending a lot—ask parents to rummage through their garages and see what spring-themed items they can find.

Limit fundraising talk. Parents who are too financially strapped to participate in fundraisers need to know they are still welcome in the PTO.

Find new ways to bring in money. Look for programs like collecting printer cartridges, box tops, or recyclables, which everyone can participate in.

Focus on the kids. Remember that the parent group’s mission is to serve the students, not to raise the most money or buy the best playground equipment.

More on our Economy Blues fundraising survey:

Complete Survey Results | PTO Leaders’ Comments
How PTOs Are Adapting to Hard Times | Recession-busting Tips