Dr. Karen Cortellino, the former vice president of legislation and resolutions at the New Jersey School Boards Association, was installed as the Association’s president at its May 13 Delegate Assembly at the Conference Center at Mercer in West Windsor.

The office is one more way to impact student achievement for Cortellino, who in her professional life is a physician specializing in radiology at Pink Breast Center in Paterson, New Jersey.

Cortellino has spent the past 17 years as a board member with the Montville Township Board of Education, a K-12 district in Morris County. She served as board president for several years and has been nominated for NJSBA’s School Board Member of the Year by fellow board members on four occasions.

In June 2022, she received the inaugural Irene LeFebvre Excellence in Boardsmanship Award from the Morris County School Boards Association. Named in honor of the Association’s immediate past president, the award was established to honor a local school board member who exemplifies LeFebvre’s dedicated service as a board member, her leadership, commitment, and significant contributions to the education of students in Morris County. 

Being named NJSBA president is “a terrific honor,” Cortellino said, noting that she’s now responsible for promoting the success of the roughly 5,000 board members who look to the NJSBA for guidance as they seek to advance student achievement in their individual districts. 

Cortellino first ran for a seat on her board in 2005, losing her first election. Undaunted, she ran the next year and won – and she’s been on the board ever since.

Asked why she continues to serve after so many years and after her two children have grown up, Cortellino noted she loves the work. Some, however, may say serving as a board member is a thankless job.

“It can feel like that at times, but when I am at a school board meeting and the fifth-grade choir is invited, or I’m asked to read to a kindergarten or first-grade class … or when I have front-row seats at a high school graduation and watch seniors walk across the stage to receive their diplomas – it’s those goosebump moments that are priceless,” she said.

Board members don’t serve to reap rewards, she pointed out. “You do it because you care about public education, and you care that the children of New Jersey are getting the best education possible.”

Public education, after all, is a pillar of our democracy, she said. “I know some people may disagree with me, but I believe we have the best education system in the world,” she said. “And I think that is because every single child must be educated and must go through a certain amount of schooling.”

“As a graduate of Montville Township High School, where Dr. Cortellino serves, I am thrilled to serve alongside her,” said Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of NJSBA. “As vice president of legislation and resolutions, she elevated and magnified NJSBA’s voice with our lawmakers. Thanks to her leadership, our board members are better equipped and even more empowered to properly advocate at the local level for the needs of the communities they serve. I have no doubt that she will also leave a meaningful mark as president.”

Embarking on Her Board Member Journey Cortellino became interested in serving on the board of education when her daughter was in elementary school. That’s when a school custodian pulled her aside.

“He knew I was a pretty involved parent,” she said. “I was picking my daughter up from the aftercare program, and he said, ‘Do you know that the board of education is looking to outsource the custodians?’”

She most certainly did not – and she initially didn’t like the idea.

“So, I started to attend board of education meetings, and somewhere right around there my interest in serving on the board of education started to grow,” she said.

Although she lost her first election, she felt compelled to run again as she did not like what she saw as an attendee at board meetings.

“The board seemed to be struggling a little bit with what its goals and responsibilities were,” she said. “To me, it seemed like there was a better way … even if I didn’t know what that way was.”

Asked what was wrong, Cortellino noted that the board is supposed to be “the what” – what the community wants and what the education system wants. “We are not supposed to be the how. We are supposed to take that how and evaluate it at the end of the year,” she said.

Cortellino won the next election, but the idea of outsourcing custodians did not go away. In 2010, with the state in the throes of a financial crisis, Montville residents voted down the school budget, and the district faced a deficit. “We very methodically thought about what we needed to cut, and ultimately we decided to outsource the custodians because the potential savings was over $600,000,” she said. They’ve remained outsourced ever since, she said.

A Lifelong Learner After winning a seat on the board, Cortellino quickly got to work learning the finer details of boardsmanship.

“I basically kept my head down and went to a bunch of training,” she said.

It wasn’t long before she learned about the Iowa Lighthouse Study, which demonstrated that effective board members result in effective boards of education – and effective boards are a major prerequisite for influencing and impacting student achievement in positive ways.

“I was very excited to learn about this study and shared its findings, along with other training I had attended with my board of education,” she said.

Her training and interaction with board members at the county and state level propelled her to take an even larger role in the Association. 

She came to see that her local board as a whole could be more involved with NJSBA, so she asked her board president if she could be a delegate on the Morris County School Boards Association.

“Once our board president appointed me as a delegate, I jumped in with both feet,” she said. “I wanted to see what other districts were doing and wanted to learn from them. I wanted a broader view of what was happening in Morris County. What I learned is that boards of education aren’t that different from each other.”

Even with that being the case, however, she enjoyed the chance to network and learn from fellow board members.

“There was also an opportunity to eat … and as the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, food is important to me,” she joked. “Food is a great icebreaker. You attend these meetings and sit with your own board or board members from other districts, and you develop a camaraderie and learn a lot.”

Eating together is no small thing for Cortellino, who further explained, “When you eat together, you talk about the family vacation and your kids, and you talk about your travels and your favorite restaurant – you talk about a variety of things unrelated to schools, and you develop bonds and a friendship with members of your own board or other school board members, so when moments come when you disagree with each other, you are able to walk away and turn the page – and you are not upset because these are now your colleagues and you understand them better.”

She brings that same attitude of trying to find common ground to her board as a member of its Teacher Negotiations Committee. “Everyone has to buy into this: During our negotiations, we may disagree, but we maintain mutual respect, collegiality and I daresay friendship as we try to work toward a fair contract,” she said. “I hope and believe our teachers know that as a board of education, we value their work and dedication and that we are trying to balance two things: providing the best education possible with the ability of the community to bear the expense.”

In a bid to elevate her own performance, the performance of the entire Montville board and the results for students, Cortellino sought out even more training, becoming a Certified Board Member in 2008, a Master Board Member in 2014 and a Certified Board Leader in 2015.

She also has participated on numerous NJSBA committees, including serving as chair of its Legislative Committee, which is a powerful force in advocating on behalf of local boards of education in Trenton.

As president of the Morris County School Boards Association from 2013 to 2019, she visited all 41 school districts in the county with a message to “Learn, Network, Eat,” to encourage participation in county activities. Under her leadership, Morris County became the first county to start a county-specific Legislative Committee, improving legislative advocacy for Morris County. She also introduced “Good News and Sharing” to the agenda, where board members would share an innovative or original student program, a best practice, an achievement or something else of interest.

On her own board, in addition to serving as president from May 2010 to January 2016, she has served on every standing board committee and on various ad-hoc committees. She has participated in three superintendent searches and has helped steer the board through several negotiations with the Montville Township Education Association. She is also the longtime liaison for the board to the Cedar Hill Elementary Home and School Association.

Cortellino has always understood the power of politics, which is one of the reasons she ran for vice president of legislation and resolutions. Seeking the position seemed natural after she became involved with lobbying against the state’s cap on the salary for superintendents, she said.

“I felt it wasn’t serving a purpose,” she said. “We already have a 2% cap on our tax levy,” as well as caps on certain line items of the budget, she explained. 

Once the cap was imposed, it came out that some assistant superintendents were actually earning more than superintendents, which complicated matters for districts trying to hold onto proven and effective chief school administrators. 

“I really advocated strongly for a reversal of the cap,” she said. “I visited many lawmakers.”

As vice president of legislation and resolutions and as chair of the Legislative Committee, she worked with the Association’s Governmental Relations staff to advocate more stridently on behalf of local boards. There may be an opportunity for NJSBA officers to work even closer with NJSBA staff to call attention to important political issues, she said.

“I’d like to see one of our officers sit alongside NJSBA staff at a legislative hearing to serve as the voice of board members,” she said. “It is something that we have not done and that I think is important to do. Jonathan Pushman (NJSBA’s director of Governmental Relations) and his staff do an outstanding job, but just to have an officer who is a board member sitting next to our Governmental Relations staff and maybe not saying anything or reading a prepared statement … I think it would help the legislators see it is not just the professionals advocating for something, but this is a boots-on-the-ground, in-the-trenches board member who has something to say about a particular issue because it is affecting them.”

A huge challenge for local districts continues to be funding, Cortellino said.

“I know some districts are facing devastating cuts, and for us in Montville, this past school year, with a hard 2% cap on the tax levy, we inched closer to having to make difficult decisions,” she said. 

Another huge issue is the staff shortage at schools, which is why the package of bills recently introduced by Assembly Education Committee Chair Pamela Lampitt is so welcome, Cortellino said.

Navigating the Pandemic and More Montville Township Schools ranked in the top 5% of New Jersey school districts on Niche.com’s Top School Districts in 2022 list, and it is widely considered to be one of the best school districts in the state. 

“I can only speak for what works for us – and first of all, we have a dedicated, hardworking staff,” Cortellino said. “Teachers are really the bedrock of our schools. We also have talented and competent administrators, our parents are engaged, and we have great students. On top of that, we have a board of education with a healthy and effective relationship with our superintendent based on mutual respect.”

At the board level, what has made the most difference is that each member knows that they must listen to each other – even when minds do not align. “I think no matter what your situation is, if you can start to build those relationships, it helps a great deal,” she said.

While no district could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools to close, Montville was well positioned to rise to the challenge, with the board having instituted a one-to-one Chromebook plan in 2017-2018, combined with its implementation of a Schoology Learning Management plan in September 2019. 

“Because Montville already had a one-to-one device plan, and our students were already familiar with the devices, we immediately overcame a huge challenge,” she said. “We were also already using the Schoology platform, so that was a big advantage as teachers had been sharing class materials and resources with students and each other. While our older elementary students and middle and high school students were already quite familiar with the platform, it did take a while for our younger students to get used to it.”

The pandemic taught us all that children are resilient, but it’s evident they suffered a great deal from not being able to attend school in person, she said. That became all too clear from the mental health crisis among the student population.

“At the board level, we tried to continue as usual for Montville – just in a hybrid format,” she said. “The board president and superintendent were in the office six feet apart and conducted our board meetings with the board members online. Everyone was able to interact, and the public was also able to interact with us online.” She added, “We powered through.”

Although Cortellino never wants to go through a pandemic again, for the most part, she thinks it brought out the best in us.

Looking Ahead Cortellino is excited that her start as president coincides with the one-year anniversary of Purnell being named executive director and CEO of the Association.

“I am super excited to be working with Tim – his enthusiasm is infectious,” she said. “He brings new ideas, good ideas – and I do appreciate his perspective on returning to basics and really focusing on what do board members need to be effective board members.” She added, “To me it always comes down to being an effective board member and collectively being an effective board. That is how you affect student achievement.”

She’ll support Purnell in terms of the goals he’s laid out for the Association, which revolve around content, connection and advocacy, she said. “I will also represent member voices to him, so he can hear the board member perspective about what is going on,” she said.

Cortellino is “deeply honored” to serve as president for the next two years. “I am readily available to any and all school board members who need help with something and want to reach out,” she said. “I am here to help them in any way I can.”

As for NJSBA, it appreciates that someone of Cortellino’s caliber will continue advocating for the Association on an even larger stage – as president. “Karen is deeply committed to ensuring the success of all students,” Purnell said. “Her passion to support board members, and the incredible work that they do, is unparalleled.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.