The Secaucus Board of Education has settled a lawsuit filed against it by Robert Berckes, who was removed as the high school principal last April.
While the details of the agreement remain hazy, the Board has agreed to pay Berckes his annual salary of $124,000 through June 30, 2019, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
Berckes did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Berckes filed his suit against the district for wrongful firing following a series of contentious meetings in April and extended into May.
The settlement basically closes the book on the episode and does not attribute blame or even give reasons for why he was terminated.
In April 2018, the board removed Berckes as principal and later tried to revoke his tenure, but kept secret the details as to what he supposedly did.
Berckes, however, later said the matter involved how he handled an incident in which a Secaucus High School student was caught with a knife and allegedly flushed drugs down a school toilet – an incident that caused a lockdown at the school, but did not result in any criminal charges.
Board members later said Berckes should have followed procedure by having the student charged and the parents consulted.
Berckes v. Montesano
Berckes, who claimed he kept schools Superintendent Jennifer Montesano informed on his actions, merely suspended the boy for two days for possessing a knife and three days for the drugs.
A police officer involved in the incident was reassigned over the incident.
Berckes and Assistant Principal Jeffrey Case were both suspended by the board in April while they reviewed the facts in the case. Later, the board tried to revoke Berckes’ tenure, resulting in his lawsuit.
Berckes claimed that the student received two days suspension because the knife was not meant as a weapon. The student also received three additional days for possession of marijuana – which the boy apparently flushed down a toilet.
In a public board meeting after his suspension, Berckes claimed Montesano had damaged his reputation.
Berckes said he came to an agreement with Montesano that the student would only face suspension for the incident, a claim disputed by Montesano and some members of the board at the time.
The boy was never criminally charged by police. This appears to have resulted in a police internal affairs investigation and a transfer of the officer involved, though police officials did not comment on it.
Berckes claimed he kept the superintendent of schools apprised of these actions, step by step.
“I didn’t do this alone,” Berckes told The Secaucus Reporter last May. “People knew what I was doing, and that will come out.”
School policy, however, said the student should have been charged and then released to a parent, which was not done, according to school officials.
A tough principal
Berckes, who served as principal of Secaucus High School since 2010, was not popular with a number of teachers in the school district, which may have contributed to the board’s actions.
“I’m very disappointed with this settlement,” said former school trustee Tom Troyer, who was among Berckes’ biggest defenders.
A number of other prominent members of the community defended Berckes, including Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who said, “Berckes worked tirelessly for the children of the school system.”
A number of parents also defended Berckes, but there were an equal number of detractors and Montesano supporters. Berckes was unpopular with a number of teachers at the high school, who criticized his authoritarian leadership style, and expressed relief when he was replaced by an acting principal.
“There are things that we could not do in the school while he was principal,” said art teacher, Doug DePice. “When he was gone, we had a lot more freedom.”
Mayor Gonnelli said he was aware of the settlement, and that the settlement would end the conflict.
“I found out about the settlement when I did an information request,” Gonnelli said. “But there are not a lot of details.”
Troyer had hoped Berckes would force reinstatement, but the agreement also includes Berckes leaving the employment of the school district.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org