Board of Education President Raymond J. Topoleski will be retiring from the board in January after more than 18 years of volunteer service. He was honored at the Nov. 20 meeting, and looked back on nearly two decades of change.
By Gary Miller
When this year’s senior class at Linden High School was starting kindergarten, Raymond J. Topoleski had just been elected to the Board of Education.
For the third time.
He is an institution of Linden education, having first been elected in April 2000 and having worked with three different superintendents. He served as board president twice and vice president six times. But as of January, Topoleski is retiring from the board.
When he looks back on his 18 2/3 years – as he is careful to calculate – one word he rarely uses is “I”. He praises the work of administrators, staff and students, and refers to what “we” accomplished, referring to the board.
“To say that he has made an impact on our district does not do him justice,” Superintendent Danny A. Robertozzi said at the Nov. 20 Board of Education meeting, when Topoleski was honored for his service. “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.”
Topoleski was applauded by his fellow board members and given a plaque at the meeting that read: “In grateful recognition of your many years of service and dedication to the children of the Linden Public Schools.”
“It says a lot about his character, to devote 18 years to students as a volunteer,” Robertozzi said. “And Mr. Topoleski did this after his children were out of school.
“On a personal note, I will miss you very much. I want to thank you for all the personal and professional support you have shown me. I want to thank you for all that you have done for our school district.”
Topoleski spoke at the final meeting about the many changes and improvements to the district in his time on the board. He spoke of large additions to the LHS Academy of Science and Technology, School No. 1, School No. 2, School No. 4 and School No. 8. He spoke of reclaiming the basement floors of School No. 5 and School No. 6, which were closed because of mold, as well as 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 Pre-K for all elementary schools; instituting the rigorous International Baccalaureate course of study at Linden High School; this year’s 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.
One of the things Topoleski said he is most proud of during his time on the board is transforming the school system into a One-to-One district, in which all students are given their own laptop or tablet computer.
“One of the biggest factors in our education gap is that poorer children don’t have the access to technology that wealthier ones do,” he said. “That causes a big problem, and it has nothing to do with anything other than opportunity. The opportunity to have the same thing that everyone else has, and that’s what we’ve been able to achieve here in Linden.”
He gives a lot of the credit for these transformations over the past two decades to Business Administrator Kathleen A. Gaylord, who started in Linden not long before Topoleski joined the board.
“The fact that we were able to accomplish so much with circumstances the way they were in terms of funding from the state is totally amazing,” he said. “Mrs. Gaylord made it happen. We have the best business administrator in the state. No ifs, ands, or buts. There’s no other way we could have achieved the things that we did.
“And the fact that we were able to do the things we did without floating a bond or imposing a huge tax increase on the people who live here – she’s unbelievable.”
Topoleski, who was a teacher for 40 years before retiring in 2009 from East Brunswick, was no less effusive in his praise for Robertozzi’s job as superintendent.
“He is bar none the best superintendent I’ve ever been involved with,” he said. “I worked for four or five superintendents when I taught, hired two superintendents here, and worked with three. Dr. Robertozzi is by far the best superintendent. I would have loved to have worked for Dr. Robertozzi with what he has done to unify the staff.”
Topoleski pointed to the fact that Robertozzi regularly visits different schools, rather than just showing up if there is a problem. He also commended him for the district Launch that Robertozzi instituted four years ago, in which staff members from throughout the district gather in the LHS gym at the start of the school year.
“The ENTIRE staff, not just the teachers – the secretaries, the paraprofessionals, the aides, the custodians, the maintenance – EVERYBODY gets together and has this big unity day, and learns from outside speakers how important everyone is to the education of a child,” he said.
Of course, Topoleski would never forget the children. He praised them for all the work they do to live up to one of the district’s mantras: “Commitment to Service.”
“Kids doing things for kids,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I take pride in the kids when they show pride because they did something for somebody else.”
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When Topoleski first ran for the Board of Education, there were two main factors driving him. One was that he thought he had something to offer to his hometown after decades of working in education. He spent one year in Cranford and 39 years in East Brunswick as a shop and technology teacher. He graduated from Newark State College, before it became Kean University, in 1969.
The other was a discrepancy he saw in the education that children were receiving at Linden’s schools. His son and daughter had attended School No. 4, School No. 8, Soehl Middle School and LHS, and his wife, Alice, had been a teacher at McManus Middle School. When his children joined the LHS Marching Band and he and his wife became involved with the Band Parents Club, he learned from parents from other parts of town that programs varied from school to school.
“The curriculum throughout the district varied depending on which elementary school you went to,” he said. “There were different clubs and opportunities depending on what middle school you were in. They didn’t use the same books in the different elementary schools.
“One of the things I worked on with former Superintendent Joseph Martino was to make sure you could move from School No. 4 to School No. 8 and not be behind or ahead because you changed elementary schools.
“That was something that was important to me. That we all get on the same page.”
Topoleski said it’s hard to believe that that was 18 years ago, the time has gone so fast.
However, the time has gone a little slower, he said, since the death of his longtime board mate Susan L. Hudak in January 2017.
“I have a lot of acquaintances, I don’t have a lot of friends,” he said. “Sue was a friend.”
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With the extra time he will have after leaving the Board of Education, Topoleski plans to spend his days at the Shore, where he has a home in Brick Township.
But that doesn’t mean he’s 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.”