Thanks to the popularity of the song and movie title "Harper Valley PTA," most groups of parents and teachers affiliated with schools are commonly referred to as "PTAs," short for Parent-Teacher Associations. However, in reality, roughly 75% of all such groups in the United States are not PTAs at all, but are really PTOs, or Parent Teacher Organizations.
What's the difference? It's not just semantics. A PTA is a local associate group that collects dues and pays them forward into the national PTA. However, a PTO is an independent organization formed by the parents and teachers themselves that is not affiliated with the PTA, that may or may not charge dues at all, and is usually formed as a nonprofit corporation.
How do you start a PTO?
- Consult with an attorney. Undoubtedly among the parents of children at your child's school, there will either be an attorney, or someone who works for an attorney, who will consider donating time pro bono to assist with the legalities of forming a Parent Teacher Organization. Each state's requirements are different, and it is crucial to ensure that the technicalities are observed with precision, so as to avoid the risk of having your organization fail to qualify for tax-exempt status. The websites provided (see links) also contain information on achieving 501(c)(3) status.
- Consider joining PTO Today Plus. This program, run by PTO Today, offers as a benefit of membership an expert guide to formation and liability issues, as well as access to valuable information on creating bylaws, structuring your group, positive parent teacher relationships with school administration, etc.
- Get insured. As with any organization or entity, you must explore your available options, and obtain the best insurance at the most beneficial rates. Your attorney can assist you in deciding what sort of coverage you need to shop for, and a good broker can assist you in determining what limits are appropriate for your new group.
- Draft bylaws. Sample bylaws are available for free on the web, but each group should draft their bylaws specifically to suit their organization. This is a document that sets forth the purposes of your organization, how it will be governed, when officers will be elected, what their duties entail, and other key matters. It is crucial to give serious thought to this document, as it typically requires a supermajority (i.e., two-thirds of a quorum) to revise or amend. Get plenty of parental involvement with this process. Your attorney volunteer can help you with this as well. The draft should be circulated for approval and comments among a smaller committee first, then presented for consideration to the membership at large.
- Get educated on finance matters. Keeping the books of the new organization should be the Treasurer's responsibility, or may be taken over by the Secretary as well, depending on your bylaws. There are software programs available at relatively low cost that will enable a volunteer officer to maintain the books properly. This is a crucial function for any organization, but especially so for a non-profit, since a failure to prove that you have not retained excess profit could negatively affect your tax status. Financial acuity is a strongly-recommended characteristic for a group treasurer. If your volunteer confesses that he can't balance his checkbook, encourage him to volunteer his efforts in some other area, and solicit someone with good finance skills to take his place.
Now that you know how to start a parent teacher organization, all that's left is to get your teacher and parent involvement started!