Community members often seek election to their local board of education to have a say in modifying district policies or bringing about new initiatives they favor. But once they win a seat on their board, they can encounter obstacles such as state and federal mandates that they have little control over.

That’s when they may consider getting more involved in the advocacy arena, in the hope of becoming a greater agent for change for their local school community and for New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students.

School board members have an important role to play in advocacy. They can work behind the scenes to inform and persuade their local legislators. Some might speak publicly or even testify before the state Legislature or the State Board of Education to generate a greater awareness or influence action concerning a pressing issue. They also can promote a new idea or recommend adjustments to an existing state policy or proposed bill that could impact students or schools.

That was the experience of Karen Cortellino of Montville Township in Morris County.

“I was hoping to make a positive change by getting elected,” she said. “The board at the time was a little too hands on, and we were experiencing a revolving door of superintendents. Things were not as stable as they could be.”

Cortellino made a run for her local school board in 2005. She lost that race, but campaigned again in 2006 and won. She has been serving on her local school board ever since and has taken on various roles, including president for six years. In November 2021, Cortellino won a hard-fought bid for another term on the Montville Township Board of Education.

“When I came onto the board, I signed up for the NJSBA New Board Member Weekend Orientation, and from that point forward, I engaged in a lot of professional development. I learned what my role was as a school board member. I learned what an effective school board looks like and the tenets board members need to adhere to,” she said.

Cortellino recalled actively lobbying against the statewide superintendent salary cap enacted in 2011 because there were already constraints in place to ensure fair contracts. That cap created instances where principals, vice principals and assistant superintendents began earning a higher annual salary than their district superintendents.

“The cap was forcing superintendents to leave New Jersey,” she said.

While it took patience, perseverance and years to reverse that measure, which was effectively repealed in 2019, she believes that consistent and effective local school board advocacy can help those situations from recurring. And, although Montville lost its beloved superintendent to a position in New York, she knows that will not happen again.

“We won’t have to lose a talented superintendent because of a pay discrepancy among neighboring states,” Cortellino said.

Cortellino, a radiologist who works in a large private breast imaging center in Paterson, served as a delegate to the Morris County School Boards Association on behalf of her local board. She went on to become the county association’s vice president and then served as its president for five years. In furthering her leadership and governance skills, Cortellino also earned the NJSBA Certified Board Member, Master Board Member and Certified Board Leader titles.

Today, as NJSBA’s vice president for legislation/resolutions, she serves as a member of the Association’s Executive Committee. Her duties include chairing the Resolutions Subcommittee and the Legislative Committee. With 15 years of local, county and statewide education governance experience, Cortellino says members must pay attention to legislative proposals.

“As a new school board member, I didn’t realize how influenced the running of a school district is by legislation,” she said. “Our public schools are highly regulated, and oftentimes when legislation is passed, there’s not a full understanding of unintended consequences like unfunded mandates.”

After the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, Cortellino recalled successfully advocating to the state, alongside the NJSBA governmental relations team, to delay public school district audits and the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) reviews and standardized testing, to give local districts and students a reprieve during a time filled with uncertainty, stress and confusion. That achievement provided valuable flexibility to local school districts.

The Perspective of Boards NJSBA Governmental Relations Director Jonathan Pushman said that local school board members can provide lawmakers with a different perspective.

“It’s important for them to convey to their local legislators the issues that are important to them because a lot of legislators aren’t necessarily experts in education policy,” Pushman said. “School board members are well-suited to educate them on the issues confronting local boards of education to help them to make more informed decisions in Trenton.”

With 580 nonpartisan public school districts as NJSBA members, Pushman said it is in the best interest of school board officials and the larger K-12 public education community to get involved, make connections and build strong relationships with lawmakers so they can have a voice in decisions that may affect public schools in the future.

“We want our members to be active in terms of advocating — both for things that will help their individual districts as well as those that would have a positive statewide impact,” he added.

Affecting Tangible Change Eileen Miller, a school board member for the Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District in Salem County since 2005, said getting involved in statewide advocacy is worth the effort.

During the 2014-2015 legislative session, Miller joined two school board members from the sending districts of Alloway and Upper Pittsgrove townships — both K-8 districts send students to Woodstown High School — in an attempt to gain greater voting rights on their regional school board. While the sending district board members could vote on items related to the receiving high school, they were precluded from voting on the regional district governance policies, which guided much of its operations.

The trio worked with NJSBA professional staff and devised a resolution to pitch to the Association’s Delegate Assembly, which is made up of local school board members and meets semiannually. Every school district can appoint a member and an alternate to the Delegate Assembly.

Miller recalls some spirited debate among the representatives, but the Delegate Assembly approved a resolution to expand the voting rights of representatives of sending districts on issues that come before the receiving district board. The NJSBA governmental relations staff then advocated for a bill that reflected that proposal.

“We managed to present enough of a convincing case that the people at the DA voted to approve it and have the NJSBA legislative team pursue this as a law,” Miller said.

After two years of persistent commitment and energy, the measure expanding the voting rights of school board members from sending districts passed both the state Senate and the Assembly and was signed into law as P.L. 2017, c. 140 by then-Gov. Chris Christie.

“It was a really interesting process to go through,” said Miller, a retired Pittsgrove Township elementary school teacher, who remembers sitting in the balcony of one of the chambers during an official voting session.

“Not everyone gets to see the whole thing, and I was glad that I did. It’s satisfying to see something that you’re advocating for actually become part of the law.”

Making Contact with Legislators Pushman encourages local school board members to stay engaged and try to be a consistent, reliable source of information to lawmakers who represent them.

“There have been a lot of challenges we had before the pandemic and new ones that have arisen, that decision makers may or may not necessarily know about, so we want school board members to make an effort to get out there,” he said.

Top education issues in 2021-2022, according to Pushman, include school funding; social-emotional learning and academic learning gaps due to the pandemic; and strengthening the teacher pipeline to address staff shortages.

“I like to tell board members that they should use their dual role to their advantage because they are both elected officials and they are voting constituents,” Pushman said.

“It’s actually great to invite elected officials in for any kind of event so you can show off some of the things that are going on in your district,” he added. “Any time of year, I think is a good time to meet with your legislators.”

NJSBA maintains open lines of communication with state legislators, sets up meetings for board members and their local lawmakers, and holds events where board members can interface with them. Each year, NJSBA invites leaders to its annual fall Workshop, the largest professional development conference for school officials in the Garden State, for an informative and always well-attended legislative update session.

In October 2021, then-Senate Education Chairwoman Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (R-29) of Essex County; Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D-6) of Camden County; and Sen. Steven V. Oroho (R-24) of Sussex County, who has joint budget oversight, attended the virtual Workshop and discussed the challenging state of education and new areas for opportunity despite the shifting worldwide pandemic.

Serve as a Go-To Source  for LawmakersCortellino said school board members’ main goal ought to be to become a reliable resource for their local representatives. So, if there is a question about something education related, their legislators or their aides will contact them to ask about how a particular proposal or new mandate could affect students or public schools.

“The most important thing is the relationship-building and to bring to the meeting with your legislator an agenda of items that you want to discuss,” Cortellino said. “Don’t turn the meeting into a gripe session. Rather, you want to come at it from a very positive perspective.

“You want to discuss pros and cons of any pending legislation. Why you believe the legislation is good or why you think the legislation may need adjustment. Come armed with solutions. Just don’t expect you’re going to bring a problem and they’re going to solve it for you.”

Advocacy as Part of a School Board Member’s Job
“If board members want to make sure that policies coming out of Trenton are going to benefit their district, they certainly want to have a voice in trying to influence that,” Pushman said. “They need to help inform legislators about what boards are dealing with at the local level, and provide details on how laws impact the local districts that those legislators represent.”

Miller said she remembers when she used to attend school board meetings and think to herself, “Why are they just doing everything the superintendent says?”

Miller went on to serve as a vice president and president for her local school board, as well as the Salem County School Boards Association vice president and president. She has also been an NJSBA Board of Directors member, chairwoman for the Association’s Standards and Assessments Committee, and a trainer for NJSBA’s New Board Member Orientation.

“You don’t have a whole lot of choice in a lot of matters because you’re bound by code and by laws and by what the state says and by what the State Board says,” she said. “The only way that sometimes you can change that is by getting into advocacy and helping to change things at the state level.”

“I do think it’s part of a board members’ job because that is the only way that we can change things that we think are not right or that are not fair,” she said.

Rosa Cirianni is a School Leader contributing editor.