Bernadette Dalesandro, a longtime member of the Netcong Board of Education, president of the Morris County School Boards Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association’s 2023-2024 School Board Member of the Year, remembers doing something a little crazy when she was in high school.

“It was 1976 when America was celebrating its bicentennial,” she recalled. “I was in the band in my sophomore year and played the trombone, and these Revolutionary War uniforms were our band uniforms – we even had the tri-cornered hat. We were the Patriots.”

Being a devoted New York Yankees fan and knowing that the entire country was celebrating the nation’s birthday, she took it upon herself to write the late George Steinbrenner, who owned the team, to let him know that she thought it would be a fine idea if band members from the Lenape Valley Regional High School marched onto his field prior to a game to play the national anthem for everyone at the ballpark. 

“I remember writing a letter, and I said to my English teacher, ‘Can you just check this to make sure this looks good?’”

Dalesandro can still recall her teacher’s response.

“She said, ‘You are out of your mind,” she laughed.

But Dalesandro told her that she had to try, and so the teacher looked, changed a few things and gave it back to Dalesandro to mail.

About a week later, Dalesandro was sitting in class when she heard her name called out over the loudspeaker, asking her to report to the office.

“I thought, ‘What could I have done?’” she said. “And when I arrived, the superintendent and the English teacher who helped me with the letter were standing there. They said, ‘You really did it this time – the board of education is never going to let this happen.’”

Confused, Dalesandro asked what they meant – and she learned that Yankees stadium had called the school wanting to take her up on the offer. In fact, someone had called wanting to speak to her but was passed on to someone else.

“They wanted us to come in two days,” she said, which did not give the board of education much time to approve the trip. 

“I explained to them I did not know what the board of education could or could not do,” she said.

Somehow, the superintendent was able to arrange the board’s approval over the phone, she said, and the performance actually happened.

The band played the national anthem before a packed crowd at Yankee Stadium, and their performance was broadcast on television.

It was the second time that Dalesandro became aware of the importance of a board of education.

The first time was all the way back in elementary school, when she learned that her best friend’s mother was president of the Netcong Board of Education.

“I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I looked up to her as a leader as this was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we did not have a lot of female role models,” she said. “But she was the board president and the only female serving with a bunch of males. That was at the forefront of my mind.”

Choosing to Serve Dalesandro didn’t know it then, but those early experiences with a board of education – as distant they may have seemed at the time – left a lasting mark that ultimately got her interested in serving her community as a board member.

But first, she’d serve her neighbors and all of her fellow citizens in another way– as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps for 25 years.

Dalesandro, who is 62 and a lifelong resident of Netcong, says she’s been asked many times over the years why she enlisted, and she tells the same story every time.

First, she really liked the uniform.

Second, she had a boyfriend, and the two got into their heads that after graduating, they would get married and join the Marines.

“I said, ‘It sounds like a plan to me,’” she said.

And even though she ended up splitting up with her boyfriend a short time after that conversation, the idea of joining the Marines stayed with her, and she began talking to recruiters after turning 17.

Since she wasn’t 18, her parents needed to sign her enlistment papers, so she set up a meeting at her house to meet with them.

Her father had served in the Army (including in the same unit as Elvis Presley in Germany), her uncle saw action during World War II on the Burma Road and her grandfather had served in World War I as a demolition expert, so there was a history of military service that made the conversation natural. 

“But I remember my dad saying, ‘I really want her to go to college,’” she said.

The recruiter told him “no problem” as she could join the Reserves and then decide what to do after graduating, which is what got her parents to sign the papers.

“I left for boot camp the day after I graduated high school in June 1979,” she said.

While attending college, she would spend a weekend a month with the Reserves as well as several weeks during the summers. After graduating from Springfield College in Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Science degree, she signed up for full duty.

“I had always wanted to be a Marine or a nun,” she said. “But my father said, ‘None of that nun stuff.’ I remember asking the recruiter, ‘Do you have nuns in the Marine Corps?’”

In the Marines, she’d serve as an O1, administrative specialist, before advancing to be a gunnery sergeant and eventually a first sergeant.

“There is no kindness in the Marine Corps, but I loved all my Marines and took care of them as if each one was one of my own children,” said the mother of three girls and two boys, ranging in age from 29 to 39. “Some of them were the age of my own children.”

Continuing to Give Back Dalesandro was still serving in the Marines when she began her board service at the Lenape Valley School District in 1995. “When my kids were in school, I took a look at being on the board and thought this was something I should invest my time in,” she said.

A few years later, she joined the Netcong Board of Education, serving on both boards for several years. 

Serving on two boards at a time, however, is not something she’d recommend in retrospect, as it was a challenging task, she said.

“I lost an election when serving on two boards,” she said, which propelled her to focus on serving on just one board. “I came back a better and stronger board member,” she said. “I concentrated on serving Netcong from there.” She jokingly added, “Sometimes, I think that the residents put me out of my misery for being on two boards … they helped make that decision for me that it was too much – and I was OK with that.”

Asked how hard it was juggling being a Marine while serving on two boards of education, she said, “Life is a challenge. Raising a family under normal conditions is a challenge. But I had the support of my husband and my parents, who were there when I could not be – they really did make it easy for me.”

After retiring from the Marines, Dalesandro put even more effort into community service. In addition to being a board member, she is a member of the Skyland’s Rotary, which has a motto of “service above self,” she said.

As a member of Rotary, she came up with the idea to collaborate with the Netcong Education Foundation on its annual St. Patrick’s Day Italian Style Dinner to raise funds to benefit the students and staff of the Netcong School District. Funds went toward a 1-to-1 Chromebook initiative, she said.

Over the years, the one issue she has been most passionate about is providing opportunities for students.

“I want students to have every opportunity to succeed,” she said, noting that when her mom immigrated to the United States from Italy, she could not speak a word of English.

“And they didn’t have ESL classes like they do now … if you pronounced words wrong, you got hit on the knuckles. Believe me, she learned and succeeded in life, but she didn’t have the help or the kindness like these kids have now, and I am glad to be part of that.” 

She’s taken many of the lessons she learned as a Marine and applied it to her board service, she said. Those lessons include:

  • Lead by example.
  • Equip and empower others for success.
  • Set high standards for behavior.
  • Create a winning culture.

One of the teachings she learned in the Marines is that success and respect are never handed to you – they are earned. “And it is the same for being a board member,” she said.

Later, she added, “It is about prioritizing board needs before your own and inspiring loyalty and admiration by attending school board training opportunities. By inspiring others to pursue training opportunities, board members invest in knowledge – and that pays dividends.”

One of the ways Dalesandro has sought to lead by example as a board member is by being present. Since 2010, she has only missed one meeting as a board member, so she could attend the college graduation of one of her daughters in South Carolina. “Set the standard, and keep the bar high,” she said.

As a result of her board service while serving, the Marines awarded her a medal recognizing her volunteer efforts as a board member and in local youth sports, including as an announcer of games.

The NJSBA, she said, has helped her at every step during her board member journey, giving her a wealth of training opportunities so she could be the best board member possible. “If you think you have taken all the classes and know everything, you are wrong,” she said. “There is always something to learn – and NJSBA provides those opportunities.”

Dalesandro is so committed to learning and training that she made sure the Netcong board did the hard work necessary to earn the Carole E. Larsen Master Board Certification, which the NJSBA bestows in recognition of high performing boards. To earn the certification, a currently certified board within the first two years of earning its certification must also complete at least 10 additional hours of training for a total of 26 board credits.

In addition to her board service at the local level, Dalesandro has gotten involved with state and county leadership, serving as a delegate to the NJSBA and as vice president and president of the Morris County School Boards Association.

One of her proudest moments as a board member with Netcong was helping bring a fully funded preschool program to the district at no cost to taxpayers. She also played a key role in helping pass a referendum, and she’s proud of her contributions at the local and state level to implement changes in the state funding formula for the betterment of Netcong, she said. 

Another noteworthy moment came about 15 years or so ago when she was part of opening a time capsule that had been placed inside the school in the 1920s – one that no one knew about until an elderly woman came forward and mentioned how she wanted to see the letter she had written come out of the time capsule before she died.

“No one knew it was there,” Dalesandro said, noting that everyone was shocked when a camera was stuck into the cement and a copper box with various items, including the woman’s letter, was found.

Today, the board houses its gavel in the copper box, Dalesandro said.

Words of Praise Several board members, including numerous members of the Morris County School Boards Association, lauded Dalesandro’s contributions as a board member in a nomination letter that urged her to be named the 2023-2024 School Board Member of the Year. 

The award has been given out since 2005 to honor a local 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 their own personal and professional development as a board member and shows active involvement on school governance at the local, county and state levels.

An independent out-of-state panel reviews the nominations and identifies the individual who will be honored as New Jersey’s Board Member of the Year.

Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of NJSBA, has been impressed by Dalesandro’s commitment to furthering the education of all students. “Bernadette Dalesandro is a shining example of what it means to be a great board member,” he said. “Not only has she faithfully served the Netcong Board of Education, she also has taken a leadership role at the county level, serving as president of the Morris County School Boards Association, where she has done additional work to promote student achievement and the efficiency of individual boards. I congratulate her on being our School Board Member of the Year. I also thank her for her service, not only to our students, but also to our country.”

Dalesandro said she is humbled to receive the award, noting that one of its previous winners, Irene LeFebvre, immediate past president of NJSBA, has been “a true guiding force” and one of her role models. “When she presented this award to me in Atlantic City at Workshop, it was even more special,” she said. “Without Irene – and don’t let me forget Dr. Karen Cortellino (NJSBA’s president), I would not have had the courage to lead at the county level.” She added, “I share this award and accept it on behalf of every single board member I have served with over the last 27 years. I would not be the board member I am today without them. They have made me a better board member and a kinder, better person. I also accept the award for every student on my watch. I was merely a bystander who wanted nothing more than to ensure they had the tools to succeed.”

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.