Contract negotiations and disputes between teachers and administration sometimes grow heated, especially in difficult economic times. The stress of contentious negotiations can affect everyone in the school system, from administrators to staff to students and their parents. If your PTO isn’t careful, you too can find yourselves caught in the middle of a highly charged political atmosphere. What role, if any, should a PTO play in contract negotiations? And how can the board best navigate stormy political waters?

Understand the impact. First and foremost, there are several ways in which contract negotiations might affect your PTO, but the impact does not have to derail your board. For one thing, parent-teacher relationships may become strained as people choose sides in the negotiations. This can affect the level of volunteerism if parents decide to distance themselves from school activities. In addition, administrators might turn to the PTO to help with extracurricular projects, especially when unions scale back on activities outside of their contract’s scope. And parents will most likely come to the PTO for updates and opinions when the district doesn’t communicate well with its taxpayers. By understanding how the union/school district discussions affect you, you can map out a plan to stay out of the controversy and stay focused on your goals.

Keep politics out. In 2008, elected officials in Dedham, Mass., showed up at a PTO meeting to read a statement about contentious contract negotiations that had dragged on for more than a year. The PTO president, who clearly had a strong opinion about the situation, challenged the town officials and a debate broke out during the meeting. The planned agenda was abandoned and parents left feeling frustrated and confused. The president also lost some credibility with the parents who did not share her point of view. Unless you can guarantee a fair and balanced debate at your meetings, do not allow either side to present its case.

Staying out of the fray can be difficult, however, when teachers or parents reach out and ask the PTO to advocate on their behalf. Joanne Flatley of Westwood, Mass., who has served as both a PTO president and as a member of a school board negotiating team, recommends that the PTO help direct questions and comments to the appropriate channels. In that way, you can make sure all parents receive the same message.

“There is no official role in contract negotiations for the PTO,” Flatley says. “They should let the school committee do its job.”

Jeff Davis, president of the Kent Primary School PTO in Carmel, N.Y., concurs. “I would encourage our member families to bring their ideas and concerns directly to the board of education members, either during a public meeting or by email or phone contact,” he says. “Teachers’ union officials, while not elected by the general public, are usually visible through good works in their schools, and should also have the opportunity to hear from parents. Their websites will generally publish the appropriate email addresses, and I would encourage parents to utilize that avenue, as well.”

Communicate. Even though you may direct all questions and conversations to the school council, many parents will still ask the PTO for updates and insights about the negotiations. The PTO is often the only forum for communication that parents know; they rely on the PTO to keep them abreast of what’s happening in the schools and the community. Therefore, it is especially important that your board provide information without taking sides.

To maintain neutrality, stick to the facts and avoid editorializing or offering personal opinions. Use newsletters, PTO websites, and email blasts to share the names and contact information of school board members. Reiterate in each communication where to direct questions and comments and list upcoming public meetings on the topic. If you do decide to let the negotiating parties share information directly with your members, only allow it in writing and be sure to offer both sides the chance to participate. Because the negotiations themselves are conducted in private, there might be a lot of rumors floating around about what’s going on. Avoid the rumor mill and only communicate “official” information provided by each side.

Set priorities and stay focused. Regardless of what is happening in your district, make sure everyone in your PTO knows and agrees on the group’s goals, then stay focused on meeting them. This is the year to overcommunicate. By clearly stating your objectives for the school year and keeping meetings focused and on task, you should be able to minimize the effect the contract negotiations have on PTO programs. And if you are providing parents with updates on the negotiations, it is important to balance that with information pertinent to your school and your members. Be sure to share PTO plans, programs, and accomplishments. This can help keep parent volunteers engaged and active regardless of which side they sympathize with in the contract discussions. It will also help foster school and community spirit, something that is often badly needed if negotiations turn sour.

“The thing to remember is to keep your eye on the ball,” Flatley says. “Teachers teach. Administrators administrate. We fill in the gaps. And if those gaps change, we need to shift.”

Be flexible. While it is important to remember your mission and to stay on task, it is also important to be able to adapt to changing events. In May 2009, teachers at the Early Childhood Education Center in Dedham, Mass., canceled the annual preschool picnic just weeks before it was supposed to take place. In an effort to advance negotiations with the town, the teachers’ union had implemented a work-to-rule policy requiring that they strictly adhere to the terms of their contract. As a result, the teachers could not use their breaks or after-school time to plan the picnic. The PTO voted to reallocate funds and redirect volunteer hours so that the picnic could take place as originally scheduled.

When Martha Braly, associate dean of education for Ottawa University’s Arizona campuses, was a principal, the PTO in her school district funded supplemental contracts for after-school programs that had been cut. The PTO “even ended up doing some tutoring after school,” she says.

While it may be tempting to try to maintain full services or to fill in every gap that results from the contract dispute, keep in mind you can only accomplish so much in one school year. To avoid overcommitting the PTO, determine up front which programs and priorities are nonnegotiable and then prioritize them ahead of all other programs and requests. Also, develop a plan for evaluating ad hoc requests. Perhaps you will say yes to any budget request under a certain dollar amount. Or you will staff and chaperone field trips but will not fill in during lunch breaks.

By setting the criteria in advance, you can help send a consistent messages to the community about the role and goals of the PTO, avoid scrambling to vote on new requests, and better allocate your budget for the year. And by setting clear goals, staying focused on your mission, and letting the bargaining team handle the contract negotiations, you can have a successful year regardless of the political climate in your school district.