WANATGE-Losing a principal at the beginning of the school year can be traumatic for a school district. That's why Sussex-Wantage schools feel lucky to have been able to get Joe Kulick to fill in for them. Iris Karnas had been the highly regarded principal of the Clifton E. Lawrence Elementary School when, at the beginning of the school year, she took the job as principal of West Milford High School. George Papp, Sussex-Wantage superintendent, gave Karnas his blessing, but he was left without an experienced leader for a school of 565 children. As more than a dozen schools have already done, Papp called on Kulick, who retired as principal of Lakeland Hills Regional High School in Passaic County in 1992 and hasn't been able to quit working since. He came on in mid-October and said he immediately fell in love with the school, the children, and the parents. Six months after he thought he was done with the daily grind of running a school, Kulick got a call from Bloomingdale schools, which needed an interim principal. Since then, he's worked anywhere from a few weeks to six months filling in around Northwest Jersey for districts in a bind. "Thirty-one schools have called since I retired," he said, "and I'm not on any list." He meant an official list of professionals who make their living as interim principals. But he seems to be on nearly every superintendent's private list. After he introduced himself to the Wantage Board of Education last Thursday, it's not hard to see why. "Right from the first hour of the first day I was here, I had such a positive feeling about this school. I've seen people giving their best," he told the board and the parents and teachers attending the meeting. "I see the loving and the caring for these kids. I see a pride. "I've been an interim principal for 15 districts, and you have quite a school to be proud of." With the enthusiasm of someone on his first job, Kulick talked about visiting 60 percent of the classrooms in the school each day, "and in every one, I see exciting lessons taking place." He spoke of standing at the main entrance to the school and shaking hands with every kid when they arrive and again when they go home. "I must average 20 hugs a day," he said. "The kids are beautiful. They want to be in school. They want to learn." He praised the parents as well, saying, "I sense a real sense of pride and involvement," and wondered at "the enthusiasm, the time that the parents are putting in." Kulick said that people ask him if he's burnt out after 46 years as an educator. "When I get up in the morning, I'm still 21," he said. "I still enjoy working with kids." Finally, he said, turning to the audience, "All these schools I've worked in - you're the tops." Superintendent Papp said that it's difficult at this time of year to find a new principal, but that his office is in the process of taking resumes and looking for a suitable candidate. He expected that Kulick would be interim principal, at a daily rate of $400, through December. Neither he nor Kulick indicated that they would be disappointed if the relationship went longer.