Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod became executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association just weeks before Hurricane Sandy ripped toward New Jersey in October 2012.
Now, almost 10 years later, he’s leaving his post after steering the Association through a historic global pandemic that shut down schools worldwide and killed millions of people, including more than 30,000 in New Jersey.
Despite joining NJSBA right before a crisis and retiring at what everyone hopes is the tail end of one, he calls serving as the Association’s chief “the best job I’ve ever had.”
“My nearly 10 years here have been extremely happy and fulfilling, and I’ve been blessed with great staff and extremely supportive officers from my first day to now,” he said. “They have been tremendously positive and always full of encouragement. Every day, our staff makes me look good!”
Looking at Feinsod’s resumé – teacher, administrator, executive county superintendent and board member of a regional collaborative public school district, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his hiring at NJSBA a decade ago was a slam dunk.
Feinsod, however, didn’t think he’d get the job.
After hearing that Marie Bilik, NJSBA’s former executive director, was retiring after rising up the ranks as a county program coordinator, field service representative, membership advocacy coordinator and director of field services, he knew an outsider might not be welcome.
There was also his status as a co-founder and former president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a grassroots advocacy group of school administrators, school board members and parents established in 1992. One of the reasons the organization was founded was that Feinsod and others felt that NJSBA was not being responsive enough to suburban districts.
“My sense of NJSBA when I applied was positive because of the information and training it provided, but it wasn’t so positive because on occasion, I had reached out to NJSBA but did not receive a call back, and I felt the attention to suburban districts was in need of repair.”
Feinsod chose to be transparent about those feelings during the interview process. Upon hearing that, his wife reacted by saying, “That is certainly a position you will never get,” he shared. He added, “But I felt it was important to raise the issue at the beginning of the process, so that it was on the table.”
Fast forward to the end of the selection process and Feinsod earned the job. “I am told I was the first executive director from outside the organization in anyone’s memory,” he said.
Destined to Teach There aren’t many fifth graders who know what they want to be when they grow up … but then again, not everyone is Larry Feinsod.
He can vividly recall his fifth-grade teacher, Anne Sloan, who taught at Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood. “She had such a dramatic impact on me that I wanted to be like her, and I wanted to become a teacher,” he said. “She made every student feel like they were the center of the universe.”
She also was not shy talking about weighty subjects such as ethics, honesty and the importance of hard work, Feinsod said. As a result, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a teacher and give back like Miss Sloan.
He earned a Doctor of Education degree from Rutgers University, a professional diploma in educational leadership from Fordham University and a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in special education from Kean University.
Feinsod also credits his father, a volunteer fire chief for 30 years in Maplewood; his stay-at-home mom; his sister; and other family members for teaching him the value of hard work, the importance of education, and always doing the right thing, he said. “Our home was modest,” he said. “We did not have a lot of money, but we had a lot of love.”
Starting out, Feinsod was a special education teacher, which coincided with his passion for helping the underdog. “I would be the kid on the playground who would stand up when someone was being bullied,” he said. “I was always for the underdog and that propelled me into wanting to become a special education teacher and work with children with disabilities. I started teaching in 1968 in the city of Linden.”
That inclination has been a hallmark throughout his career, including when he was superintendent of the Madison Public Schools. During that time, he had a mother make a plea that her daughter, who had been blind since birth, go to a regular school system, rather than a school for the blind. “The child study team thought it was not possible, but I overruled them, and this young lady went through the school system from kindergarten to grade 12. It was a very proud moment when I presented her high school diploma,” he said.
The Move to Administrator Feinsod relished being a teacher but moving into the ranks of administration was an easy decision.
“I wanted to have the opportunity to have a greater impact over the lives of more children, he said. “It was an easy decision for me.”
At the “ripe old age of 25” he became the assistant principal of Holmdel High School, he joked. He served in various other administrative positions before being named superintendent of Mount Arlington Public Schools, where he spent nine years before being named superintendent of Madison Public Schools.
“I spent almost 17 years as the superintendent in Madison – it was just an unbelievable community,” Feinsod said. “I left there to go to my largest school district, which was Cranford in Union County.” Coincidentally, that search was conducted by NJSBA, he said.
“I was blessed,” Feinsod said. “Each of these districts were places where education really mattered. The boards and staffs were amazing.”
Upon retiring as superintendent in Cranford after several happy years, Feinsod enjoyed about 30 days of rest before receiving a call from Lucille Davy, who was serving as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education.
“She asked if I would be interested in becoming an executive county superintendent of schools, which was a new position created by the state Legislature,” Feinsod said. “Gov. Jon Corzine and the commissioner interviewed me – and the governor recommended me to the state Senate to be the executive county superintendent for Essex County.” After confirmation by the Senate, a new education chapter began.
As the home of the state’s largest district, Newark, as well as 25 charter schools, the county had an enrollment of about 130,000 students. Feinsod did such a stellar job as an executive county superintendent that he was asked to stay on even when the governorship changed hands from Corzine, a Democrat, to Chris Christie, a Republican.
“Then it was brought to my attention that Marie Bilik was retiring as executive director of NJSBA, and so I applied,” Feinsod said.
A Track Record of Success Upon being hired, Bilik told Feinsod being executive director of NJSBA would be the best job he ever had – and it turns out, she was right, he said.
“That’s because I’ve been able to influence some aspects of the education landscape in New Jersey – and having that influence was really important for someone who has dedicated their entire life to education,” he said.
From his early days as a superintendent through his rise up the administrative ranks, Feinsod said he had plenty of experience handling one crisis after another, which is a trait that has served him well throughout his NJSBA tenure.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, we contacted every school board in the state with an offer of assistance,” he said. “We built a relief program to match donors with school districts in need of equipment and supplies. We also put a pause on dues for those districts that suffered financial challenges because of the damage inflicted by the storm.”
NJSBA headquarters closed its doors for several days during and in the aftermath of the storm, with employees granted whatever time they needed to literally get their houses in order, Feinsod said.
Just several weeks later, the state’s schools and NJSBA had to contend with a tragedy that on some levels struck even closer to home than Sandy’s whirlwind. On Dec. 14, 2012, a lone gunman killed 26 people, including 20 children, before taking his own life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut – less than a three-hour drive from NJSBA headquarters.
“I cried when I learned about it,” Feinsod said. “We immediately went into a mode of dealing with school security.”
NJSBA immediately launched its Safe and Secure Schools Project, which in January 2013 spearheaded a statewide forum on the topic at The College of New Jersey – an event that drew more than 650 people, including board members, superintendents, business officials, law enforcement personnel and other stakeholders, Feinsod said.
As a continuation of that effort, former NJSBA President John Bulina appointed a School Security Task Force to provide additional guidance for boards – a charge that Feinsod made a priority.
The result was “What Makes Schools Safe?” a 111-page report that was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. It included 45 recommendations to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of our students – and it also marked a new emphasis on providing in-depth insights and guidance to members via research and advocacy.
More recently, the Association held a virtual information forum, “School Safety: Where Do We Go from Here?” The forum was held in the aftermath of the May 24 shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. A gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in an incident that held some uncomfortable similarities to Sandy Hook. Hundreds of stakeholders attended, signaling their support to do more to ensure that students, staff and visitors at schools are kept safe.
Since Feinsod started, NJSBA has published some 18 reports and white papers, including five reports specifically addressing district challenges during the pandemic.
Most recently, the NJSBA teamed up with Sustainable Jersey to publish its “Report on K-12 Climate Change Education Needs in New Jersey” which will serve as a key resource for the school community to successfully navigate new learning standards adopted in June 2020 that made New Jersey the first state to incorporate K-12 climate change education across content areas.
“School security was always important, but it never reached the crescendo that occurred after that tragedy, which changed everything,” Feinsod said. “There were other shootings before and there have been additional shootings since … but the dreadful results of Sandy Hook just changed educational security forever.”
Feinsod has also been at the helm of many other NJSBA milestones and achievements. A handful will always stand out.
“One accomplishment I’m very proud of is creating our educator-in-residence position,” said Feinsod, noting that Vincent DeLucia has done a stellar job since taking on the role upon its creation in 2013.
In his role as educator-in-residence, DeLucia assists board members in fulfilling their responsibilities to advance student achievement. He also serves as an information resource, plays a vital role in NJSBA training, works with local school leaders in developing goals for their instructional programs and is NJSBA’s contact with the state Department of Education regarding curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The Association’s accomplishments under Feinsod’s leadership are too many to list but include adding a new level of certification in NJSBA’s Board Member Academy – the New Board Member Certification, which must be earned during the first two years of service as a board member; bringing a renewed focus to STEAM education, including via the NJSBA’s STEAM Tank challenge in partnership with the U.S. Army; successfully advocating for additional school funding and local school control on several issues; introducing a new online superintendent evaluation service; establishing numerous task forces, including on educational opportunities for the non-college-bound learner and another on the delivery of mental health services; launching NJSBA Online University and more recently NJSBA’s Online University Hub in partnership with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators; participating in the development of the 2022-2024 strategic plan; and helping the Association and board members navigate the pandemic, which included pivoting to virtual training, virtual meetings and converting the in-person Workshop into a virtual training conference and expo that has drawn rave reviews.
He even brought back hot food to county meetings, which is completely paid for through corporate donations. “Feed them and they will come – and they did,” he said. “Our attendance has gone up considerably at our county meetings.”
School Leader could tick off dozens more accomplishments. Feinsod looks at what he tried to do on a thematic level.
“My core belief is that every child must be valued,” he said. “That is one of the reasons we created ‘The Why of NJSBA,’ which stresses the achievement of all students through effective local governance of public education.”
The “why” was Feinsod’s way of emphasizing the impact board members have over student achievement – as well as to recognize the importance of the training, advocacy and resources that NJSBA provides on that journey.
When people think of his NJSBA service, Feinsod hopes they think of the word “relationships.”
“Relationships are the key to success – relationships equal relevance,” he said. “That was something I stressed throughout my tenure here. We even started a book study with senior staff – and have covered numerous publications. We started out with my favorite book, which is ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t’ by Jim Collins. That question has been the overarching theme of my administration – the idea that we as an organization need to have a trajectory of constant improvement, as Collins suggested. We are a good organization, but how do we make it great? That is a question I’ve been deliberately asking and stressing for nearly 10 years.”
As it pertains to NJSBA, the relationships Feinsod has emphasized extend to the governor’s office and the Legislature. “I always would say to our staff that if we don’t have a seat at the table, we’ll end up on the menu,” he said. “Now, we have a very important seat at the table with the Legislature, the governor’s office, the New Jersey Department of Education and many other stakeholder groups, including the state PTA. We must remember that parents are the most important partners for our schools.”
Relationships remained a priority during the pandemic, when Feinsod continued to attend county meetings on a virtual basis to stay in touch with members. Prior to the pandemic, he attended at least one meeting of every county association throughout the year.
Making that virtual pivot was critical for the entire Association – and NJSBA employees proved they were up to the task, Feinsod said.
“I informed the staff on March 13, 2020, that we were going to pivot and become a virtual organization because of the pandemic,” Feinsod said. “We were in an outstanding place at that time because a year earlier, the board of directors had approved my recommendation to spend $500,000 to upgrade all of our technology. We were ready, and the one question that I asked employees to keep in mind was this: ‘What would our members say about our responsiveness and assistance when this pandemic is over?’ So, everything we have done is centered around that one question – and I could not be prouder.”
In fact, over the past 24 months, NJSBA has received more positive feedback on how it has responded during the pandemic than it received from any previous effort. “That is because our staff has been so dedicated to keeping our members informed and assisting in every way possible,” he said. “From the tragedy of the pandemic, we have sharpened our technology skills. We learned and are still learning how to effectively use that technology to meet our mission.”
That includes converting the annual Workshop to a virtual event for two years before deciding to move back to an in-person event as the nation starts to manage COVID-19 on an endemic level. “We never thought about calling it off,” Feinsod said. “We knew the staff could do it, and we gave them all the resources they needed and let them run with it – and they could not have done a better job or made me happier.”
Looking ahead, Feinsod is eager to spend more time with his wife of more than 50 years, Sharon, a retired English teacher, as well as his two adult daughters. “She has been my soul mate for all these years,” he said of his wife. “She has had a lot of nights over the years where she had to have dinner alone. I owe a great deal of my success to her support, and now it is time to pay greater attention to her and my family, which includes our granddaughter.”
But NJSBA has not seen the last of Feinsod, who plans to attend Workshop as its recently retired executive director. You can bet a lot of attendees will be patting him on the back and congratulating him on a job well done.