When Christine Zona was a first-grade teacher, her impression of the school's PTO was that it was composed of mothers with time to bake cookies for classroom parties.

Then she moved to New Milford and started volunteering in her own children's elementary school.

It proved a revelation.

"It's not just about baking cookies,'' said Ms. Zona, the recently elected, town-wide Parent-Teacher Organization president, who lives with her husband, David, and two children, Jack, 9, and Gracie, 7.

Ms. Zona quickly learned the PTO is a backbone of this district, whether it is organizing literacy weeks and registering kindergartners or paying for an expert on the cyber world to offer a lecture to parents.

The PTO has built playgrounds, provided funding for field trips, and annually gives $1,000 college scholarships to as many as 12 high school graduates.

The organization champions programs and equipment it believes will benefit children and teachers the system might otherwise be unable to afford, such as classroom libraries or a visit from classical musicians.

Though the PTO is a non-partisan organization, Ms. Zona said educational advocacy is at the heart of its mission.

"But it's a fine line we walk,'' she said.

In some circles, the PTO has been criticized for blindly supporting education budgets despite the cost to taxpayers. PTO leaders have even been accused of improper tactics when it comes to distributing budget information.

In the coming year, Ms. Zona said her hope is to bolster the PTO's reputation as a community resource and to encourage parents and others to come and see what the schools have to offer, not only the children but the community as a whole.

And she considers the gift of time as valuable as a check.

Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote said she considers the PTO an invaluable partner.

"I can't imagine where we would be without them,'' Dr. Paddyfote said of the organization that annually contributes as much as $130,000. "They just collaborate with us on so many ventures. They have enriched the district.''

Board of Education member David Lawson said he sees the PTO as a "supplement to the whole educational experience.''

"Yes, they raise money, but more importantly, they put books in our classrooms and get our kids reading,'' said Larson, a high school teacher in Dover, N.Y. "We're really blessed to have them.''

The New Milford Parent-Teacher Organization has a website, www.newmilfordpto.org/com, listing its meetings, with agendas and minutes, as well as providing information on various activities and programs.

The cost to join is $10 annually. The PTO currently has some 800 members.