LINDEN, NJ — It was the beginning of a new era for the local Board of Education as it prepared to have its first meeting in almost 19 years without Raymond Topoleski on Thursday, Jan. 3.
Topoleski has retired from the board he joined in April 2000, on which he served twice as president and six times as vice president under three different superintendents. He worked with dozens of fellow board members during his tenure and is leaving with more experience than the current nine members combined.
Topoleski joked that the final few months of his time on the board was like a “farewell tour” because he was getting so many well wishes from friends and colleagues that he had met not only through the local board, but from his involvement on educational committees on the county and state levels.
Even his final board meeting on Nov. 20, he fought off tears while discussing the people he’s met and the improvements he helped make in local schools.
“The teachers I ran into, the administrators, the parents told me how much they appreciated what I did,” Topoleski said in a Dec. 11 phone interview. “It’s nice to hear. You get a little touched. You feel a little misty about it. I did do a good job of not crying. No tears. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
“You’re talking about almost 19 years. A lot of people run for the board of education to get their name out there and then they use it to run for office. That was never my intention. It was never what I wanted; it was always about doing the best for the kids.”
At the Nov. 20 meeting, members of the Linden Board of Education presented Topoleski with a plaque that read: “In grateful recognition of your many years of service and dedication to the children of the Linden Public Schools.”
“To say that he has made an impact on our district does not do him justice,” Superintendent Danny Robertozzi said at the meeting. “Whenever I had proposed a new idea or had a thought, the first thing he would always want to know was, ‘Is it good for students?’ The second thing he would want to know was, ‘Is it good for faculty and staff?’ If you could answer yes to those questions, you always had his support.”
Leaving the school board was a time for Topoleski to reflect on the past. If there was one constant throughout his time on the board, it was his push to improve the district, to find new ways to best serve the students and staff. Topoleski spoke at the final meeting about the many changes and improvements to the district that occured during his time on the board. He spoke of large additions to the LHS Academy of Science and Technology, School Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 8; and the reclaiming the basement floors of School Nos. 5 and 6, which had been closed due to mold, and the aging and damaged third floor of School No. 1.
He was also on the board for a major renovation of Edward R. Cooper Athletic Field, transforming it into Tiger Stadium at Cooper Field; adding full-time preschool for all elementary schools; instituting the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Linden High School; the 2018 departmentalization of elementary school schedules; and security upgrades, including replacing windows and doors at all schools several years ago and this year’s installation of double-door security vestibules.
And, during Topoleski’s time on the board, the district became a “one-to-one” district, with all students given their own computers.
Of all the improvements and innovations, however, two stood out for Topoleski: the standardization of the district’s curriculum and the creation of the Professional Development Resource Center to help train teachers.
Standardizing the curriculum was particularly crucial because students in various schools around the city were using different textbooks and studying different subjects, so students arrived at middle and high school at differing levels.
“Your kids might be behind or they might be ahead because they weren’t using the same curriculum,” Topoleski said. “So, one of my things was to make sure it didn’t matter what school you went to, you were all doing the same thing. Same books, same curriculum. Obviously, I couldn’t do that. It had to be done with the superintendent. But, we worked on it and we accomplished it.”
Topoleski spent 40 years as an educator. After a year in the Cranford School District, he got a job in East Brunswick, where he was a shop teacher for the next 39 years. He taught metal shop, wood shop, computerized drawing, graphics, photography and other subjects before retiring in 2009. When his two children were members of the Linden High School marching band, he became involved in the parent’s association, which led to him into running for school board.
He is looking to spending more time with his wife, Alice — the two will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in June — and he also looks forward spending more time at their shore home. But, just because he will be spending more time on his boat doesn’t mean Topoleski is leaving Linden altogether.
“I am going to miss it, but I’m not going away,” he said. “They still hold meetings, and I’ll be there.”