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PTO Leaders Cheat Sheet

Real leaders’ questions about parent involvement, bylaws, and more, with the advice, information, and tools you need.

by Elizabeth S. Leaver


Wondering how to start a PTO? Looking for a bylaws template? Don’t know how to get an EIN? Whether you’re starting a parent group at school or have been at it for a while, you’re bound to have some “how do we…” questions—and our cheat sheet for PTO and PTA leaders has the answers!

How do we start a PTO?

How do we work with a principal who oversteps?

How do we remove a board member?

How do we find out whether we need insurance?

How do we avoid being a clique?

How do we get an EIN?

How do we vote on a budget?

How do we get teachers more involved?

How do we find out whether we need to pay taxes?

How do we deal with a bylaws violation?


How do we start a PTO?

Our school’s parent group dissolved some time ago, and a few of us want to get it going again. How do we even begin?

It’s great you want to get back at it! Once you have some like-minded parents together, these are the basic steps you want to follow. (Read “How To Start a PTO” for an even more comprehensive look.)

  1. Develop your group’s purpose or mission statement. This is a broad description of what you see as the core reason for your group’s existence. For example: “The purpose of the PTO is to enhance and support the educational experience at [School Name], to develop a closer connection between school and home by encouraging parent involvement, and to improve the environment at [School Name] through volunteer and financial support.”

  2. Brainstorm a list of benefits and a list of activities. Benefits include ways in which the school, students, and parents will be improved by your group. For activities, list a few major ideas, and emphasize building parent involvement over fundraising.

  3. Write your bylaws. Bylaws are the core rules that govern your organization. They address the makeup of the executive board, how officers are elected, how often meetings are held, and similar nuts-and-bolts questions. Think about how you want your group to run, then look at other groups’ bylaws before adopting yours.

How To Write PTO Bylaws

Complete Sample Bylaws

  1. Document everything! This includes the details of your plan, which will in turn drive all your efforts during startup. Make it easy to read, nice-looking, and clear. Document minutes of all your planning meetings, especially when you adopt bylaws and policies, and assign officer titles.

  2. Adopt a set of financial controls. Putting procedures in place to protect your money is a crucial step, and it’s a lot easier to do that when a group is new. You’ll not only protect your group long term against misappropriation of funds—and unfortunately that happens to PTAs and PTOs a lot more often than you might think; you’ll also help prevent simple mistakes that can cloud your financial picture.

10 Tips for Handling and Protecting Your Assets

  1. Get the word out, and start recruiting. Write an introductory note for teachers and parents. Be friendlier than you think you need to be—no one likes a clique. People want to be part of a strong, well-organized group that gives the impression that it isn’t going to waste their time or money. Convey that in your public presentations, but also be sincere in your welcome to the whole community. If you let your enthusiasm show, people are sure to respond!


The whats, whys, and hows of 501(c)(3) and incorporation, plus all your FAQs

How do we work with a principal who oversteps?

Our new principal wants to control what fundraisers we can do, and what we can spend the money on.

Almost all principal-parent group tension is the result of misinformation, bad communication, or false assumptions, and this scenario most likely is no different. If your principal seems to want to have a say in your fundraisers, don’t assume it’s just to overstep—really consider his opinion and suggestions he gives, as well as the responsibilities he has—and be willing to compromise.

That said, it works both ways. If you feel strongly that a certain fundraiser is better than what the principal wants to do in terms of profit, volunteer time required, and student participation and excitement, do your research and meet with him to talk about it. You can also brainstorm together about a fundraiser that supports a school goal.

In terms of how to spend the money from fundraisers, many PTOs budget a certain amount of money for the principal to spend on items or needs. The principal should be required to make a formal written request to the PTO board before he has access to these funds, and the request should indicate how the money will be used and how it will benefit the students. The principal might come to the board with additional requests, and your board can handle those requests at its discretion as they come up. If your bylaws don’t specify to allocate funds through mutual discussion (with the final decision in the PTO’s hands), then an amendment would be in order. You do want your budget to support the school’s goals, but you don’t want the school—or the principal—to control it.

Real Talk About School Principals


How do we remove a board member?

One of our officers is argumentative and in general makes things difficult. Can we remove her from the board?

That’s a tough situation, for sure. First, has anyone really talked to this person about what she’s putting out there and how it’s being perceived? It’s not an easy conversation to have, but sometimes people genuinely don’t know they’re being negative.

If talking doesn’t help and you do want to remove the person, look in your bylaws for the section about officers and elections—there should be a subsection about removal from office. Does it say something like “officers can be removed from office with or without cause”? If so, you’d just need to follow your own requirements in terms of voting. Another common way to phrase it is “officers can be removed for failure to perform the duties of their office.” In this case, you’d have to check the job descriptions outlined in the bylaws to see whether being kind is included as a duty of office.

In either situation, your members would vote to remove the officer at a general meeting; if at least two-thirds of the voters are in favor, then that officer can be removed.

If your bylaws don’t give any specifics about how to remove an officer, then you’ll just have to stick it out until the term is up—and this would be a good reason to amend your bylaws.


How do we find out whether we need insurance?

Why do we need insurance—doesn’t the school cover us?

Simply put, you do need insurance to protect you when things go wrong. None of us want to think about the bad things that can happen, so the peace of mind you get from being covered is a huge help. We’ve seen embezzlement stories in the news, we’ve heard from groups who have lost equipment or inventory to leaky ceilings, and so on.

As to whether you’re automatically covered by your school, school insurance is not parent group insurance. Some school districts might still cover their school parent groups, but in most cases, parent groups need their own coverage separate from the school’s. In many states, school districts aren’t allowed to cover parent groups because they’re independent from the school and not government entities. The best way to confirm is to ask your principal or district business manager.

Insurance FAQs


How do we avoid being a clique?

I know people think of us a clique, but we’re really not! How do we change that perception?

Having a clique reputation is a huge involvement-killer, and the best way to get rid of that reputation is—don’t act like a clique!

Be open and friendly. This is key. The more you put yourselves out there as a welcoming group of nice people, the easier time you’ll have getting new help (and shedding your clique rep).

It’s great if your board members are all good friends—really!—but that’s just not an easy situation for new people to walk into, especially shyer volunteers. Make a point not to clump together and to only socialize with your “officer” circle at meetings and school events.

Avoid jargon and insider-speak. Always explain business items and acronyms even if they’re held over from previous meetings. Don’t assume everybody knows what you’re talking about.

Use name tags so that newcomers will know better who’s who; at meetings, set up chairs in a circle vs. the “head table” setup.

Clique Fixes


How do we get an EIN?

Why does our PTO need an EIN (and how do we even get one)? And are there potential liabilities for the person who submits the form because you have to put a social security number out there?

You need an EIN, or employee identification number, to open a bank account or to apply for federal tax-exempt status. If you have a bank account and wonder whether you already have an EIN, ask the school for its EIN‚ then see if it matches the one being used for your bank account. If it does, you definitely want to get your own—it’s best to keep your PTO funds separate from school monies.

It’s easy to get your EIN via the IRS website; simply type “EIN” in the search box. You can also apply by telephone or fax; complete instructions are available at the IRS website.

As for any liability, the social security number required when applying is for identification purposes only; the person who gives her social security number on the application isn’t liable or responsible for the group’s activities in any way. It's just a way to discourage illegal activity.

Free Webinar: 501(c)(3) for PTOs


How do we vote on a budget?

We know budgets are important, but we need some basic information. Once we get one together, how do we get it approved?

They are important! Setting a budget lets your school’s staff and principal know what level of financial support they can expect from the PTO, and they can plan accordingly. And just as important, your individual officers aren’t burdened with the personal responsibility of deciding the best way to spend the PTO’s funds.

Once you determine what the “best way” is, you have to go through the process of making it official through a vote:

  1. Show the budget to your executive board and to the principal; ask them to review and approve (or suggest changes).

  2. Then, present it to the general membership for approval. Come prepared with copies of the budget spreadsheet to hand out and your notes so you can explain the determinations you made.

  3. Remember: A budget is a work in progress. You’re drafting an ideal plan for the year, but that draft will be adjusted as the year progresses and as you learn more about your group’s finances in practice.

Create a PTO Budget


How do we get teachers more involved?

How do I explain to teachers that “PTO” stands for “parent-teacher organization”? We need them to build our community.

This can be a slippery slope, especially these days when most teachers are strapped for time and funds. It’s also somewhat of a misconception that the T in “PTO” means equal involvement from both parents and teachers—there aren’t many schools where teachers attend PTO meetings regularly, help organize events, work on fundraisers, etc. For one thing, their jobs are generally time-consuming during the school year, and coming back after hours may be difficult. For another, teachers with children might want to help out at whatever school their own children attend.

That said, there’s a difference between asking them to attend board meetings during the evening and asking whether they’d help your group in other ways more suited to their bandwidth and interest: knowing about and supporting events, fundraisers, and other parent group activities with students and parents. Most teachers would certainly be willing to offer this level of support; you might just have to make a personal appeal.


How do we find out whether we need to pay taxes?

Yikes! We’re really not sure whether we’ve missed the boat on paying taxes, or whether we even need to. Is there a not-too-complicated way to figure this out?

First things first—is your group a 501(c)(3)? This is the designation for being tax-exempt at the federal level. The IRS expects any PTO that regularly raises more than $5,000 of gross income each year to file for 501(c)(3) status. Note that the test is based on gross income, not net profit. If your PTO exceeds the $5,000 test, you should seriously consider filing. Otherwise, your PTO is a small business to the IRS and could be subject to federal tax on your group’s income.

Note that even if you are a 501(c)(3) and thus exempt from federal income tax, you still need to file an annual information return. Form 990 (or 990-EZ) asks about the sources of your group’s income and what types of expenses were incurred in the previous year. Most of the questions are financial in nature, so your treasurer should keep detailed records all year.

Tackling Your PTO Tax Return


How do we deal with a bylaws violation?

One of our board members completely ignores our group’s bylaws—takes votes without a quorum, calls last-minute meetings, etc. What are we supposed to do?

Violating the bylaws is a serious matter; they are the legal document for running your parent group, and not following these laws of your organization can put its status as a nonprofit or tax-exempt organization at risk. It can make the officers in question personally liable if someone decides to sue your parent group.

Not to mention, it can seriously undermine your group’s ability to recruit new volunteers and to gain their trust. Parents are much less likely to give their energy to a group that appears to be run by officers who are more interested in themselves than in the good of the organization.

If you think there’s been a bylaw violation, here are a few things you can do. (“PTO Bylaws FAQs” offers a complete set of steps.)

Make sure a violation actually took place. Request a copy of the most recent bylaws and any other standing rules or policies that govern the parent group.

Talk with other officers or the principal. If necessary, bring it up with the rest of the officers on the board or with your school’s principal (or both). Stress again that bylaws violations are risky for the parent group and the officers involved.

Try to remove the person from office. If your bylaws allow members to remove an officer who doesn’t meet the duties of the office, this is the time to try to put that process into action.

Originally posted in 2019 and updated regularly.

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