The controversy over suspended Secaucus High School Principal Bob Berckes shows no sign of stopping. At Board of Education meetings, parents and concerned citizens approach the podium to demand answers, defend or criticize Berckes, and/or rip into board members and Superintendent Jennifer Montesano (though a minority have defended the super).
After news broke last month that Superintendent Montesano recommended tenure charges against Berckes, two residents at the most recent meeting on July 26 took aim at Board Attorney Stephen Fogarty and members who haven’t spoken up for Berckes.
Montesano first suspended Berckes with pay in April over how he handled a student who allegedly brought a knife and marijuana into the high school. But the board has not gotten into detail, claiming they cannot legally disclose the reason why Berckes was suspended.
In June, the board approved a districtwide principal transfer and moved Berckes to Clarendon School. It came around the time he filed a notice of intent to sue the district for $5 million over his suspension.
At a May board meeting, Berckes claimed a school resource officer recommended the marijuana be flushed down a toilet, and that he and Montesano agreed on a few days suspension for the student. Afterwards, Berckes said, Montesano tried to get the officer to say he did not follow proper protocol in dealing with the incident.
Local resident Donna Barabas, a former teacher at Jersey City’s Dickinson High School, has been one of the most outspoken residents against Berckes’ suspension.
At the June 28 board meeting, Barabas asked Fogarty what charges there were against Berckes after the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office declined to press charges after an investigation. Fogarty told her to file an Open Public Records Act request for them. She did, but found nothing.
“That was a misdirection,” Barabas told Fogarty to his face during their latest encounter. “And you, as an attorney, should have and could have answered that there were no charges, only an investigation. You should’ve known that there was no criminality involved.”
Barabas then asked Fogarty if he advised Board President Jack McStowe and Montesano that the incident could’ve been handled “in-house.” Fogarty refused to answer.
“If you advised this course of action of suspension, you participated in a charade,” Barabas told Fogarty.
She also had strong words against Montesano, noting her lack of secondary school experience. Montesano was the former superintendent of schools for the Haworth School District, which only features a grade K-8 school,
“After only six months here, she suspended the two administrators in our high school,” Barabas said. “Only someone who is unfamiliar with the operation of a high school could remove the two top administrators for two and a half months at the end of the year.”
Parent Christine DeIasi was also critical.
She said she respected the principal transfers and believed that the district was moving on from the incident. But: “I feel like we’ve kind of gotten caught in this big black hole of principals and suspensions. When I go around and I see all my friends in different communities, all they know about Secaucus is that our principal is suspended, and now, tenure charges.”
She asked, “How much father are we going to go? I’m very concerned about where we’re going. Should I keep my son in the school district?”
“You should’ve known that there was no criminality involved.” – Donna Barabas
Board member Sharon Dellafave said at the July board meeting that the board deliberately did not disclose the tenure charges at their June meeting.
She sympathized with residents’ anger at the meeting. “I understand from your point of view perhaps the board was not forthcoming, last month,” she said. “But I have to say that confidentially is a right for all district personnel, and it’s a right that the Board of Education is legally and duty-bound to protect.”
Because of those restrictions, Dellafave said, the board was tight-lipped on the tenure charges.
“Whether these charges are warranted or not, it remains to be explored,” she said.
“Although it isn’t the case, I hoped that matters regarding the status of Dr. Bob would’ve been resolved before the onset of the new school year,” Board member Kathleen McFarlane said. “This has been an extremely lengthy and stressful process for everyone involved.”
Board member Lou Giele, who has sharply opposed the suspension, said he was “overwhelmed’ by the passion shown from speakers over the past few months.
“I myself am frustrated by this process,” he said. He said he was worried about what the action could mean for other administrators. “If we go through with what is desired, we are going to put a dark cloud over every faculty member in this district, by saying that if the Board of Education can do this to Dr. Berckes, they can do it to anybody. That’s a very uneasy environment for faculty.”
Ann Marie Grecco, Montesano’s administrative assistant, directed all comments on the Berckes situation to Fogarty’s office, which did not return requests for comment on the matter.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org