2002-07-17 / Front Page
Retired schools chief lauded for pushing district ahead
By brian donahue
EAST BRUNSWICK — He was never one to take credit for the accolades of a renowned school district, instead, he surrounded himself with a team of accomplished professionals and allowing the spotlight to be shared.
But recently, Dr. Jon R. Kopko of Colts Neck, who served as superintendent of schools in East Brunswick, Middlesex County, from 1989 until his retirement in 2000, had no choice but accept his latest award all for himself when the Board of Education dedicated its central offices off Route 18 as the Jon R. Kopko Administration Building.
"I’m obviously very honored to have something like that done," Kopko said after the June 18 ceremony. "I’m so touched and humbled that people would determine that I had that kind of an impact on the school district."
But, true to his style, Kopko noted that the impact he spoke of was the work of many people.
"East Brunswick is a very large school district, and I’m just one person. I had a lot of great people working there with me, and the residents were just a pleasure to work with."
Kopko’s tenure in East Brunswick — which followed superintendent posts in Brielle and Pompton Lakes — was marked by a number of accomplishments. Among them, in fact, was the acquisition of the very building now named in his honor.
About 10 years ago, the school district, having outgrown its Milltown Road offices, entered into an interlocal agreement with the Township Council and acquired the building — which had been in foreclosure — without any cost to local taxpayers. The board sold its Milltown Road property and parcel of land on Riva Avenue in order to pay the township back for the new building, located behind the McIntosh Inn.
With Kopko at the helm, the school district received national and state recognition for excellence in academics, athletics and the arts, including having seven East Brunswick schools named as Blue Ribbon schools by the U.S. Department of Education — more than any other school district in the state.
"We became a lighthouse school district as a result of his leadership and vision," said Board of Education member Patrick Sirr, who was board president for five years during Kopko’s tenure.
Sirr said that Kopko was also instrumental in establishing the township’s master teaching program for teachers to undergo further training to enhance their abilities and earn credits on the pay scale. Later, the additional training would be required by the state for all school districts, Sirr noted.
"What I remember most about Dr. Kopko is that, when he came to East Brunswick, it was a good school district, but he took it to that next level. He raised the bar," Sirr said.
Among Kopko’s best accomplishments, Sirr noted, were his hirings and his ability to work with people.
"He valued teamwork. He knew that it takes everyone working together, the PTA, the staff, the students, the parents and the Board of Education. He was able to bring us all together and get us working as a team," Sirr said. "He surrounded himself with tremendous, accomplished and hard-working people. It takes a good leader to know how to do that."
When asked how he remembers his time in East Brunswick, Kopko responded, "Intense. Never good enough, and I mean that in a very positive sense. The people who I had the pleasure to associate with in East Brunswick, they just don’t respect the status quo. Whatever it was we were doing, they’d step back and evaluate it and say, ‘How can we make this better?’
"It was an exciting place to work. Great kids, they were achievers, and they continue to bring accolades to the school district. They come from good, supportive families, and that made my job a lot easier," he said.
In retirement, Kopko, said he runs 20 miles each week, plays racquet ball, has learned to play piano, and occasionally travels with his wife, Mary.
"I’m fully retired," he said with a chuckle, noting that he is sometimes asked why he doesn’t become an interim superintendent somewhere. "If I wanted to do that, I’d have stayed in East Brunswick."
These days, he said, "I do whatever I want, whenever I want."