For the first time in ten years, Superintendent James Opiekun's name will not be read aloud as a speaker at the commencement ceremony this June. At the end of May, Kinnelon will say goodbye to Opiekun, who is retiring from the district.
Opiekun came to in 2002 after serving as superintendent in the East Rutherford school district. He has worked for 24 years combined as a superintendent and before that, worked his way up the administration ladder after beginning his career as a high school history teacher.
Opiekun described the last decade of his work with the district in three phases. In 2002, he said he walked in to two major issues the school district was faced with: ongoing recovery from financial struggles and a building project that involved three of the district's schools.
The nearly $27 million renovations to , and Kinnelon High School had been approved when Opiekun came to the district, but it was then his job to see the renovations through. At the same time, the district had cut a lot of staff, particularly in administration, to be able to fund the building projects, he said.
"We were kind of at the bottom of things, organizationally," he said.
Because of these issues, Opiekun said the community had lost some faith in the district.
"Community morale was down, trust was down," he said. "Could it get any worse? You kept hoping the answer was 'no.'"
But Opiekun said the challenges of that time also presented an opportunity for the district.
"It was a great opportunity to rebuild, figuratively and literally," he said.
What Opiekun called the "second phase" began around 2005, after the Kinnelon Board of Education formed a community budget committee and the district redirected its energy into developing curriculum and hiring instructional support staff. A high priority was placed on students' test scores, including the SATs, and further development of the district's mantra about the "Three A's," academics, athletics and the arts, began to take shape. As the high school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Opiekun said he felt that the improvements in those areas have been most notable recently.
"I could safely say in the last ten years, we've had more honors for all three areas than in the last 40," he said, crediting the "dynamic staff and tremendously motivated student body" for the accomplishments.
"We really began to emphasize the nuts and bolts of what education is all about," he said.
By 2010, though, Opiekun said he felt the district reached the third phase, which he labeled "the budget crisis." The district's state aid was slashed by more than $1 million and two years later, Opiekun said the district is still trying to recover.
"The good thing about all this is trying to recover forced us to re-examine everything and re-prioritize," he said.
Opiekun said the district has learned to do more with less and has continued to work to meet the expectations of the community with "significantly diminished resources." This process would have been made harder if not for the support of the community that Opiekun said he has seen. Opiekun said he has been able to develop relationships with parents and students that has helped make the district a home for him.
"It sounds so cliche, but it's a big family," he said.
Despite working in education for so many years, Opiekun said the challenges kids are faced with growing up now are significantly different from ten or more years ago. As they grow older, there is more pressure on students to participate in more activities to make their resumes stand out amongst the rest, he said.
"I don't think people get how hard it is to be a kid today," he said. "I cannot say enough about how much I admire the way kids handle that."
But one of the most rewarding aspects of his job, Opiekun said, is to be able to help kids have the opportunities that lead to rewarding futures.
"The best part of my job was just opening a door and letting people go through it," he said.
As for Opiekun's future, he said he is currently "exploring options."
"I don't feel like I'm ready to retire in a classic sense," he said.
The school district has not yet chosen a new superintendent, but Opiekun said the decision is expected to be made by the board's next meeting. He also said that even though he will no longer be working in Kinnelon, he will be keeping a watchful eye on the district and reading about it in the news.