Dr. Karen Cortellino, vice president for legislation/resolutions at the New Jersey School Boards Association, presided over her final meeting as chair of the Association’s Legislative Committee, on Saturday, May 6, during a virtual gathering that included two special guests: Assemblyman Antwan L. McClellan (R-1) and Assemblyman Erik K. Simonsen (R-1).

Irene LeFebvre, NJSBA president, expressed her appreciation to Cortellino for her tremendous work in chairing the committee. “Thank you for not only for getting us a seat at the legislative table but for teaching us to feel comfortable approaching legislators,” she said.

Cortellino, she added, has been a staunch advocate of serving as a resource for legislators as bills are developed – not just after the fact.

Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of the Association, called Saturday’s meeting “bittersweet,” as it was the last one being chaired by Cortellino.

“She has worked hard alongside our Governmental Relations team to ensure we have both sides of the aisle, truly allowing both parties to speak – and that is directly tied to our mission of nonpartisanship and is important during this difficult time,” he said.

In her closing remarks, Cortellino said she has enjoyed chairing the committee. “Thank you to all the dedicated staff in planning and executing these meetings,” she said.

She added, “When I became vice president of legislation/resolutions four years ago, we did not enjoy the same level of legislative participation as we do now. That is an absolute tip of the hat to Jonathan Pushman (the Association’s director of governmental relations) and the Governmental Relations staff.”

She went on to say that with the help of the Legislative Committee, the Association has created a “beautiful cycle” where lawmakers are interested in what NJSBA is doing, attend its meetings and inspire board members to advocate on behalf of their school districts – and by doing that lawmakers are educated and become more interested in the concerns of the Association. That cycle of information sharing takes everyone, she said, including the Governmental Relations department, board members and legislators.

Assemblymen Eager to Help Schools

The guest speakers at the Legislative Committee meeting were McClellan and Simonsen, both Republicans who represent New Jersey’s 1st Legislative District.

Simonsen was sworn in as an Assemblyman in January 2020. A lifelong resident of Lower Township, he previously served as councilman from 2013 to 2016 and mayor from 2017 to 2018.  He is the athletic director of Lower Cape May Regional High School and is also a singer, songwriter, and front man of the band Twelve:01.

He also serves on several committees, including Community Development and Affairs, Education, State and Local Government and the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

McClellan has been an assemblyman since 2020, serving as Republican whip since January 2022.  A lifelong resident of Ocean City, he served as a councilman from 2012 to 2019, and as a member of the Ocean City Board of Education from 2010 to 2012. He works as a public information officer and personnel director in the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office.

He also serves on several committees, including Appropriations; Homeland Security and State Preparedness; Tourism, Gaming and the Arts and the Joint Committee on Economic Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity.

Simonsen referenced his long career in education as a teacher for 18 years, supervisor and vice principal in explaining his dedication to schools. “Anything we can do to help out along the lines of legislation and our children and our schools, we are happy to help,” he said.

A portion of the meeting involved a conversation about school funding, with Pushman observing that many school districts face funding cuts under S-2 due to increasing “local share” but then they are prohibited from increasing the tax levy more than 2%. “We have been advocating for some flexibility around the 2% cap,” Pushman said. Simonsen replied that certain components of the formula should be redone, and McClellan agreed that the formula has shortcomings, referring to school funding as “an archaic beast.”

Another topic was the school staffing shortage, with McClellan noting that it involves more than just teachers – schools are also struggling to find custodians, bus drivers and other staff, he said. He added that the state needs to make it easier for teachers from other states to come to New Jersey to teach — and that more needs to be done to encourage a diverse pool of candidates to enter the teaching profession.

Another issue that may be playing a role in the teacher shortage is certain teacher evaluation requirements, such as the focus on student growth objectives and student growth percentiles. “It’s burning teachers out,” Simonsen said. “They already get assessed. They already get their observations by their administrators. There are test scores and all these other things. The SGOs and SGPs are, in my experience, ridiculous … it’s just not accurate, because you have classrooms that have multiple special needs students, which obviously is going to make their SGO scores lower. Some you have all advanced students or AP students, obviously their SGOs are going to look great. So, to evaluate a teacher on that when the variables of their students are vast, to me is just ridiculous,”  he said.

The assemblymen also spoke at length about harassment, intimidation and bullying policies and reporting, and how schools can ease that problem without putting a permanent stain on the records of students who commit an infraction.

Governmental Relations Update

The duration of the meeting largely consisted of Jesse Young, legislative advocate at NJSBA; and John Burns, the Association’s senior legislative counsel, providing members with an update on recently enacted legislation and bills pertaining to education. They spent a significant amount of time discussing the education highlights of  Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget and the recently enacted legislation that partially restores reductions in state aid included in the initial budget proposal pursuant to S-2.

NJSBA staff also discussed legislation that would allow school staff to expand the use of sick leave, which the NJSBA opposes. You can view the Association’s testimony here. Other topics included the status of the School Based Youth Services Program, the elimination of the Start Strong assessment and numerous other bills and legislation pertaining to education.