MONTVILLE, NJ - Vanessa Peña, lovingly summed up her mother, Montville Township Board of Education President Dr. Karen Cortellino, in these words, “She is an incredibly hard worker. The hardest worker I know. She loves doing everything! She loves being a BOE president and a doctor. But most importantly, she loves being a mother, and I am grateful to have her as mine.”
One can tell Cortellino loves her children Vanessa and Alexander just by the way she proudly speaks about them and their accomplishments. Vanessa recently graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law, and she just took her bar exam. Alexander is a history and political science major at Moravian College. He always has been interested in history, and he is very active in Revolutionary War re-enactments. He does a lot of traveling around the country in these events. Being interested in both sides of the war, he not only dresses as a patriot militiaman but also as a British grenadier wearing an authentic bear skin hat. Alexander also is an Eagle Scout.
Cortellino was born in Queens, NY and went to Catholic school until she was in fourth grade. She admits to being a tom boy, climbing trees, building forts, and searching for refrigerator boxes to build houses to hide in.
Her family then moved from Corona, Queens to Flushing, Queens where she went through the public school system, including Queens College. In high school and college, she was an avid athlete in softball and tennis, and she always has been a devoted Yankee fan. After college, she went to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico where she met her husband Joe Peña.
When they graduated from medical school, they came back to New York to do their residencies. Cortellino did her residency in Bellevue Hospital Pediatrics in NY. She worked there for two years. Cortellino said, “Usually in pediatrics you don’t see children dying, but at Bellevue, I saw very sick children, and they did die. I couldn’t do it.” That is when she decided to leave pediatrics and start another residency in radiology. In 1988, she opened her own office in Wayne where she still specializes in breast imaging.
Cortellino would bring her children to work with her. She did this until her children started nursery school. She said, “To this day, my patients remember my children and ask about them.”
The couple was married in 1982 and had their first apartment in Lyndhurst, NJ. They moved to Montville all by accident. They were going to buy a house in Fairfield until they found out it was in a flood plain. The realtor just happened to mention Montville to them, so they thought they would check it out and loved the rural feel of the community. “I don’t regret a day that we have lived here,” said Cortellino. She continued to say, “I love living in Montville. It has a small town feel, a rural feel, and it is close to everything. And of course, it has a great school system.” They bought their first home on Douglas Drive in 1984. Their daughter Vanessa was born in 1987, and in 1994, their son Alex was born. They then had a house built in another section of Montville, and they have lived there for twenty years.
Cortellino has a great belief in the importance of family. Her daughter Vanessa will be getting married in Dec. 2015, and Cortellino cannot wait to have grandchildren, a lot of grandchildren.
Her love of family and in the belief of the importance of breaking bread together flows into her philosophy of being president of the Board of Education. She said that the Board plans dinners and celebrates birthdays together. She believes that when people break bread together, they get to know each other and barriers fall away. They bond and get to like each other, so when there are disagreements, it is about issues not about personalities. “We may disagree with the issue, but we like each other. No one gets upset,” said Cortellino. She continued saying, “If we disagree, at the end, we support the decision of the Board.” She said that they trust each other and believe in the committee system which makes it easier for everyone. “Board members are prepared and respectful,” she added.
Cortellino said that the Board supports the administration. “Our Superintendent, Dr. Paul Fried, is fantastic. We are so lucky to have him. He is brilliant, knowledgeable, wonderful with people, thoughtful, and compassionate. His greatest strength is in knowing about student learning.”
She also said, “Through all the ups and downs over the years, our school district always had a solid teaching staff. They are our bedrock. We could always count on them. As a mother, I am grateful for this.”
The accomplishments Cortellino is most proud of are recent improvements in the educational program, in particular the Original Science Research Program. While she gives full credit to Dr. Fried for introducing the idea, she is pleased that it received the Board’s full support. She says that as a result of this program, students get to do authentic research with experts in the field. She also is proud of the expansion of the concept to the Humanities that allows students to explore their interests. Teachers and students are enthusiastic about these programs.
When speaking about her husband Joe Peña, she said that he has always been “a hands on dad.” He was a Boy Scout leader and involved in his daughter’s eight year career in fencing. He always would shuttle the children around taking them to events and tournaments. He also participates in Revolutionary War re-enactments with his son. Her husband is also a doctor. He is an anesthesiologist who spent most of his career at Wayne General Hospital and now serves several area surgery centers. He said, “My wife is an amazing woman. She is a devoted mom and a terrific doctor. She really enjoys her service on the Board, too. I don’t know where she gets her energy.”
Cortellino also is an active member of the New Jersey School Boards Association and a member of the Morris County School Boards Association (MCSBA). She rose through the ranks in the MCSBA by becoming a director, then vice president of Board Services, and vice president of Legislation. Since May 2013, she has been their president.
The family has a pet Boxer named Sophie, and she is a true member of the family as one can tell by looking at the pictures of her lounging around their house. Sophie is a rescue and was adopted through the NJ Boxer Rescue.
As for traveling, Cortellino does not like to fly. She says, “I am a reluctant traveler.” However, she did take a holocaust tour with her son.
When asked about the future of Montville, she said, “The enrollment in our schools is beginning to steady. People who live in Montville care about their community. They not only invest money, but more importantly, they invest their time and themselves in making sure their township stays as great as it is.”