When Kerri Wright joined the education and employment team at Porzio Bromberg & Newman P.C. in Morristown, New Jersey, in 2005, she began interacting with board of education members on a regular basis.

“I was surprised by the time they took to do what was essentially a volunteer job,” she said.

Impressed by their dedication to promoting a quality education, she expressed her interest in serving on the Chester Board of Education, a K-8 district with a regional high school, when she saw a notice in her local newspaper about filling an unexpired one-year term.

While someone else was appointed to the spot, Wright took heart that the superintendent of the school district at that time, Mike Roth, encouraged her to run for a board seat in the 2007 election. She did so unopposed.

Since joining the board all those years ago, Wright has put together an impressive record, serving as president, vice president, chair of its negotiations committee and chair of its personnel committee.

At Virtual Workshop in October 2021, she was honored as the New Jersey School Boards Association’s 2021-2022 Board Member of the Year, having been nominated by Dr. Christina Van Woert, superintendent of the Chester School District.

Given annually since 2005, the award honors an individual board of education member who makes significant contributions to public education, exemplifies leadership in the field of education with a strong commitment to the children of New Jersey, demonstrates a strong commitment to personal and professional development as a board member and shows active involvement in school governance at the local, county and state levels.

Wright learned the news after getting a voicemail from Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the NJSBA, who asked her to call him back.

“He told me I had won … and I was very surprised,” she said. “I think I was so emotional, I almost started to cry.”

It was the second time that Van Woert had nominated Wright for the honor, which was one of the reasons she became so emotional. “The fact that she feels so strongly about me and this award that she nominated me twice for it — it was so overwhelming,” Wright said.

NJSBA President Irene LeFebvre (the 2020-2021 Board Member of the Year) and Feinsod issued a joint statement, recognizing Wright’s stellar track record.

“Kerri Wright has dedicated her adult life to helping school boards make thoughtful decisions that promote student learning,” they said. “As a board member and lawyer, she has been at the forefront of promoting effective school governance. Her contributions to the Chester Board of Education can best be described as simply amazing. We congratulate her on this honor!”

Answering the Call to Serve Wright, a third-generation Chester resident, has fond memories of being educated in the Chester school system. While she has no children of her own, she has a niece who spent time in the school system. When she became a board member, she was surprised to find that Language Arts teacher Joe Pizzo was still a teacher. In fact, he is still teaching after 46 years in the district.

“He was one of the teachers in the school system that inspired my love of writing, which prompted me to go to law school,” she said.

While becoming a board member meant promoting a stellar public education for children, Wright also was hopeful she’d realize an ancillary benefit: gleaning insights that would help her become a better lawyer whose specialty is education, employment and labor, litigation, data privacy and cybersecurity.

“I felt it was a good time to give back to the community, but also in my professional work — to have inside information of what it’s like to be a board member — the side I wasn’t getting as a board attorney,” she said.

Chester Achievements The Chester Board of Education serves students from wealthy families but also has students who are disadvantaged and need more services. “It is interesting for a district to have both of those far ends of the spectrum,” Wright said. “I think Chester does a great job to meet the needs of all the kids.”

The district middle school has made the New Jersey Schools to Watch list four years in a row, which is a middle grades school improvement program. New Jersey is one of 18 states participating in the program sponsored by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. New Jersey’s participation is a partnership between the New Jersey Department of Education and the Garden State Partnership for Teacher Quality, which includes Kean, Rowan and William Paterson universities.

Chester is also a Google for Education Reference District. The district demonstrates excellence and thought leadership through the innovative use of technology, including Google Workspace for Education and Chromebooks, to drive impact and positive learning outcomes. It also belongs to Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a free, voluntary certification program for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools in New Jersey. The program provides guidance, support and recognition to schools that implement steps to be sustainable in their operations and are proactive in preparing students for future challenges.

“We had taken on the initiative several years before COVID to become a one-to-one technology district, meaning that there is a device for every one of our students — whether it is a Chromebook or iPad,” Wright said. “We also made sure we had an educational infrastructure set up with technology coaches, which really made the transition pretty easy. That is not to take away anything from our teachers and administrators, but from a technology standpoint, we were in a much better place than a lot of districts and were able to transition quickly and less painfully when we had to go fully remote.”

In addition to how well Chester has navigated the pandemic, Wright is proud of how quickly students returned to in-person instruction when shutdowns were eased, coming back to school five days a week in August 2020.

She’s also learned being a board member comes with limitations.

“When you join the board, you have these big ideas of bringing in these education programs and saving money at the same time for taxpayers, and you get in there and realize there are so many state and federal mandates that leave districts very little room to maneuver,” she said. “But what is also inspiring about that is with so many state and federal mandates, that makes the decisions in the areas we do have control over so much more important.”

With her fellow board members, she knows she’s made a difference. One of her proudest accomplishments is helping to pave the way for Van Woert to be hired as superintendent in January 2008.

“That one decision alone, I think has transformed our school district,” Wright said. “Dr. Van Woert is fabulous — she is a tireless advocate and educator, and she spent many years in the district as a principal before she became a superintendent. She is a great leader and very inspiring for the administrative team and teachers. She has a great outward look for the community — and the parents respect her.”

That respect is mutual, with Van Woert noting that Wright is widely admired for her unwavering commitment to the children of Chester as well as her legal work on behalf of all New Jersey children.

“Ms. Wright’s record of service, including in the areas of finance, curriculum and instruction, has led to the many endless and creative opportunities we have for the children of Chester,” Van Woert said. “Her impact can be felt on the manner in which our district is a leader in technology implementation, social and emotional learning, professional development, etc. What is most important is that all of these areas and tenets lead to a powerful educational experience for our students — and Kerri Wright is one of the premier drivers of that experience as a board member of fourteen years.”

Van Woert added, “Ms. Wright is involved with many boards of education across the county. As an attorney and as a sitting school board member, she brings a unique perspective to her professional life and to her work as a school board member. She is widely sought after for guidance and ideas from her many contributions to the field.”

Wright also takes pride in bringing back a summer school program that was discontinued when state aid was frozen during an economic downturn in 2011. The program focuses on both sides of the learning spectrum: students who need extra help as well as students who would benefit from enrichment programs.

“I don’t think it’s typical for summer programs to have both remedial and enrichment programs,” Wright said. “It’s not because school districts don’t find that absolutely important, but with the 2% tax levy cap and other mandates from the state and federal government, there is not a lot of room in the budget even if the taxpayers say they want these programs. Districts have to be tight with their budget and programs, so the focus is more heavily on those kids that are struggling, at risk and who need more services.”

The summer school program was brought back gradually, with the district at first allowing teachers the ability to use the school building to provide their own summer classes and be paid directly by parents without being a burden to taxpayers. The school district eventually expanded the program, including it in the budget. “It took us several years to make it a fully-funded program, and now it’s more robust,” she said.

Wright is also proud of the strategic planning work the board does. “Not every district does a continual strategic planning process,” she said. “We are consistent in writing a strategic plan every five years — that allows us to really focus our energies as to what vision we want for Chester instead of it being haphazard.”

As to her goal of using her talents as a lawyer to help the students of Chester while becoming a better lawyer in the process, Wright said it’s gone just as planned.

“I think my legal practice and experience provides me with a lot of great insights into my role as a board member and the decisions me and my fellow board members make every day,” she said. For instance, her expertise came in particularly helpful several years ago when there was a push to dissolve the West Morris Regional High School District that serves the children of Chester. After a feasibility study, there were not enough votes to advance the process, she said, with Chester being among those who rejected the idea.

Likewise, as a board member, Wright has learned skills she’s applied to her law practice, such as mastering the art of compromise to get things done. “You need good insights … and that makes me a better lawyer and trusted adviser,” she said.

Thomas Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.