New Jersey’s Jim Opiekun steps into predecessor’s considerable shoes
On July 16, Jim Opiekun took over the reins of Floral Park-Bellerose School District (FPBSD) superintendent from Dr. Lynn Pombonyo, who held the position since 2007 and called the prior Friday, July 13 her last day. Opiekun comes to the area from his home state of New Jersey, where he was superintendent of Kinnelon School District, which recently had its high school place 182nd out of the Top 500 secondary schools according to Newsweek. With Governor Chris Christie engaged in a highly contentious and very public relationship with teachers’ unions across the river, the timing couldn’t have been better for the Morris County native to go from one high-performing district to another.
“I would say from a superintendent’s standpoint, the only good thing about being a superintendent in New Jersey is that you understand what it is to live in a hostile work environment and I just hope that I never created that for anybody else. It’s kind of debilitating and almost demoralizing, and I’m talking as superintendents, not just myself. For whatever reason, the poster child for everything that’s wrong, the superintendent is always a lightning rod, but this was multiple strikes, continuously to the point where you feel very devalued and debilitated,” he explained. “Just from that aspect, going to Floral Park-Bellerose, they valued my experience and what I brought to the table. They liked what my résumé had to offer. I really loved what I did there, I love what I do, I really feel that it’s been an avocation as well as a job along the way, so I see this as a wonderful opportunity to continue that.”
In order to fill the open position left by Dr. Pombonyo’s retirement, the FPBSD board of education conducted an extensive search for a new superintendent, eventually ending up with six finalists, one of which was Opiekun. As part of the selection process, visits were paid to each candidate’s district during which time informal talks were held with people who had significantly more interaction with the applicants. For Trustee David Fowler, the visit to Kinnelon reaffirmed the confidence instilled in him after reviewing Opiekun’s resume.
“Maybe it was his own confidence but I didn’t realize until we got there that people weren’t aware that we were there asking about Mr. Opiekan as a future superintendent. They thought we were there to visit the district and get impressions of the district. When we started asking specific questions about Mr. Opiekan, it was a bit of a surprise to some of them. They knew he obviously wasn’t returning to Kinnelon, so they weren’t [overly] shocked. It just struck me that he really hadn’t told anyone that people were coming in to ask about him and to say nice things. That certainly wasn’t the case,” recalled Fowler. “What sold me was that although the Kinnelon District was a K-12, we spent our time in the elementary and middle schools and to me it felt like a very similar type of community [to Floral Park]. People seemed proud of the school, etc. He had been there for a decade and everything I kept hearing from everyone to a person was something along the lines of their loss being our gain. It was good to see what he had accomplished in Kinnelon in his ten years as far as student outcomes, the faculty, staff and everyone seemed to be enthusiastic. It was a good day to be in a school.”
Jim Opiekun may have been a history major at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland while also pitching for the school’s baseball team, but getting into the education field seemed like an inescapable fait accompli once you take into account his familial surroundings. Not only was Opiekun’s father a retired school administrator, but his sister is a French instructor, a brother serves as principal at a Maryland school and in addition to his wife teaching third grade, his daughter is a physical education teacher and his son is majoring in history like his father. But it took someone asking him what he was going to do with a history degree that got the New Jersey native thinking a move to the front of the classroom might not be such a bad idea.
“I guess what drew me to it is that it’s a really nice way to make a living. You’re around kids, you’re doing a very positive thing and you can make a difference. It might sound a little corny, but I think that’s what drives most of us—that feeling that you can actually make a positive difference,” Opiekun explained. “As I got older, the selfish part of it is that I think it keeps you young. You can’t be around kids all the time and not be kind of in that milieu. You’re current by default. Something that I always thought was a spinoff, and I don’t know if people have processed that but you’re importing wisdom to them, but at the same time, they’re giving you youth.”
Returning to New Jersey, the native son started out his career teaching high school and middle school history in Hopatcong Borough before moving up the administrative ranks and becoming vice-principal of the middle school.
From here, Opiekun landed his first principal position in the K-8 Hardyston Township District before moving on to Montague to be a chief school administrator, a hybrid position that embraces superintendent and principal responsibilities. A nine-year stint as a superintendent in East Rutherford that found him overseeing building projects and curriculum revisions became a springboard to the same position in Kinnelon.
Along the way, the lifelong educator grew to love the way his efforts created opportunities for kids that he often eventually witnessed blossom into positive outcomes. It’s a perk he feels is analogous to throwing a rock into a pond.
“If you’re standing around a body of water and you throw a rock in it, you get ripples. When you do something in education, you create ripples. You have no idea what those ripples are going to touch or do. You can’t underestimate that,” Opiekun pointed out. “The best part of my job is just watching those ripples benefit those kids in the short-term, but also long-term in helping them to become successful.”
Likewise, the reams of red tape, secret agendas and Byzantine manner in which higher education is often handled are all aspects of the job Opiekun has come to terms with.
“Whatever legislature you’re working with, there’s this political agenda that’s sometimes not really based in reality in terms of the implementation or the efficacy. Very rarely do we have a seat at the table even though we’re supposed to be collaborative and consensus building and reach out for various inputs,” he affirmed with a sigh. “It’s all top-down from the legislative end. That’s just the way it is. The worst part of my job is trying to translate sometimes what makes very little sense into a practical operational procedure and that can be frustrating.”
Navigating Familiar Terrain
Dressed in a yellow polo shirt and sitting in his sparsely-decorated office, Opiekun is the picture of calm before the ensuing storm that is the 2012-13 school year that’s set to kick off in less than a month. As we discuss his lifelong love of baseball and following pitchers like Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson while playing the sport his entire life, he points out a baseball on his shelf signed by the Kinnelan High School squad. As the weather grew warmer, people became accustomed to seeing the district superintendent throwing batting practice to the baseball team. It was a way to stay in touch with his favorite sport while still maintaining a more personal connection with the district community and a release from the day-to-day challenges faced by public education. With the current economy still limping along and tax relief being the buzzword heard around the country, Opiekun knows he’ll be treading on familiar ground despite the change of zip codes.
“The pressure on revenues, homeowners and taxes—that’s not isolated to any one state. So it’s the whole idea of creating efficiencies and being able to, from an operational standpoint, be able to keep your expenses as low as possible so that you can free up money for the educational part of what we do. I think that’s the challenge wherever you go,” he explained. “[That said], this is not a district in crisis. You’re not coming in because you have to put out a lot of fires. What I need to do is assess and observe and be judicious about change. What I’ve found is that I just have to make sure that people understand that my agenda is to help improve a lot of the good things that are going on and that takes time.”
So while the school year is set to kick off in a few weeks, Jim Opiekun is the picture of resolute calmness, not unlike Mariano Rivera making his way in from the bullpen to close a game. Whether it’s the experience as both a seasoned educator and competitive athlete or the confident anticipation of the task at hand, he still relies on counsel he was given a number of years ago.
“Never confuse being in charge with being in control,” he laughingly said. “I think with being a new administrator, you feel like you’ve got this mantle of authority but along the way you begin to realize that there are a lot things that you’re responsible for but there are a lot of variables that are outside of your control. So you just learn to operate that way. The things you have control over, you hold onto and you exercise that towards your goals. There’s a misconception that the superintendent of a school can control everything. There are just too many people out there doing the wrong thing. The idea is to get everybody pulling their oars in the same direction. My job is to try and focus those energies, but that one would be the number one piece of advice that I got years ago that’s really resonated with me.”