For elementary and middle school students, field trips, exploratory days, and other special activities are always among the highlights of the school year. Anybody that remembers their school days certainly remembers the excitement that came with those trips and activities.
But what many people don’t realize is just where some of that funding comes from. In the Watertown-Mayer district, students and families are lucky to have a small but dedicated Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) that helps not only to raise money for special trips and subsidize activity fees, but also make special purchases for the primary, elementary and middle schools when funding is available.
Since 2007, the Watertown-Mayer PTO has raised just over $177,000 for the schools, largely through product fundraisers, its annual spring carnival and redeeming cash from General Mills Box Tops and Campbell’s labels. A budget of $22,000 is distributed to the schools for use in kindergarten through eighth grade, but when additional funding is available, each school can make additional funding requests for certain items.
One of the PTO’s largest purchases in recent years was the new SMART Boards in every classroom at the Elementary and Primary Schools. Other items funded by the PTO include new furniture in the Primary School’s media center, the rock climbing wall at the elementary school, and other student enrichment opportunities.
“We’ve been able to fund some bigger items for the schools, which is pretty exciting,” PTO president Judy Costello said. “When we got the SMART Boards, we were probably five years behind other districts. It took the money from the PTO to actually get them in the schools. I feel good about that, because it’s what they use every day.”
Pat Hittle, principal at Watertown-Mayer Elementary School, agreed the PTO funding has been extremely important.
“They do so much to provide a well rounded educational experience for our students,” Hittle said. “We truly could not do our job without them.”
While the PTO has been able to help fund some bigger purchases, the bulk of its funding goes to support student activities. The schools count on the annual $22,000 from the PTO in order to keep student activity fees low — $25 per student -— and the PTO funding also completely covers the activity fees for many of the free and reduced lunch students, which account for roughly 25 percent of the district’s students. The PTO also provides $1,200 a year for the annual week-long sixth-grade trip to Wolf Ridge, an environmental learning center in northern Minnesota.
“There is a need out there, especially for the Wolf Ridge trip,” Costello said. “There’s kids that wouldn’t be going on that trip without some extra help. We give (the school) $1,200 to help pay for needed expenses, and if a student can’t pay, or doesn’t have boots to go, the school can use that money however they want. We just want to support the whole class being able to go.”
Costello said the PTO has faced some challenges this year, however, in meeting its annual budget. She said the PTO is hoping for a strong spring event in order to provide the schools the money that it counts on from the PTO. While the PTO has averaged about $30,000 in fundraising each of the last six years, Costello said there have been good years and down years, and this has been one of the down years.
Costello said that one of the biggest challenges with PTO fundraising comes from many families not truly knowing where the money goes. She hopes that by spreading the word on what the money is used for, it will help in that regard, particularly with the product sales.
“I think the PTO has a hard time because when a kid goes out and sells things for a sport or activity, they know exactly what they’re selling for,” Costello said. “I think with the PTO, a lot of people don’t realize what that money is going to.”
Costello also said the PTO is always looking for new members. There are currently only about eight or nine active members, so new people and new ideas are always welcome, she said, especially as some parents may soon be leaving the organization as their children grow older. Costello added that being involved with the PTO not only helps provide financial support for the schools, but it is also a great way for parents to be connected to the school.
“The fact that we go to a meeting once a month and your principal is sitting right next to you, it’s a wonderful resource to be connected to the school,” Costello said. “We learn so much at these meetings. Pat (Hittle) almost always gives us a little briefing on what is going on. If you want to be connected and know what’s going on at the school, come to a meeting.”
The PTO meets on the first Monday of every month during the school year at 7 p.m. in the elementary school media center. Free child care is available upon request, and new members are always encouraged to attend.
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]