The Secaucus Board of Education has approved a resolution to replace Superintendent of Schools Jennifer Montesano, who has been in charge of the district since 2017.
The board acted at a special meeting on Sept. 8, the same day as the first day of the school year. The board first went into executive session “to discuss personnel.” Nearly 50 minutes later, the board emerged.
President Jack McStowe apologized for the length of the executive session, but noted “it was a critical issue.”
The board then voted on three resolutions. The first resolution continues administrative leave with pay for an employee only identified as “employee number one” pending an investigation and determination by the board as to what further action may be taken.
The second resolution continues administrative leave of “employee number two” with pay pending an investigation and determination by the board. The meeting agenda refers to them only as “two employees whose names are on file in the Business Administrators’ office.”
The third resolution appointed Daniela Riser as the Acting Superintendent of Schools. Riser was previously the district’s Director Of Curriculum And Instruction.
No other information was presented at the meeting as to why Riser was stepping in for Montesano. Montesano, usually a staple at the meetings, was not present. She was last present at the Aug. 19 meeting.
The board voted 5-3 to approve the first two resolutions, and 8-0 to approve the third.
President Jack McStowe, Trustees Enrico Bolignino, Joseph Lewis, Jayesh Patel, and Kathy O’Connell voted yes. Vice President Lance Bartletta was not present.
Trustee Joan Cali voted no on the first two resolutions but voted in favor of the third to appoint Riser. Trustees Barbara Strobert and Mary Eccles did the same.
“I think the action was taken very hastily, and it was taken without adequate consultation of the board,” Strobert said of the first two resolutions.
No other board members commented. Mayor Michael Gonnelli and members of the Secaucus Town Council were in the audience, but did not speak at the meeting.
While it is not clear why Montesano is out, she has been in hot water in the past after she suspended Secaucus High School Principal Robert Berckes and Assistant Principal Jeffrey Case for their handling of a student caught with an alleged small amount of cannabis and a pocket knife in April 2018.
Berckes defended himself at the May 2018 board meeting for not having the student charged and having disposed of the alleged cannabis, stating that that he made the decisions in consultation with a school police officer and Montesano. Residents came out en masse to the June 2018 board meeting with many in support of the suspended principals and some in support of Montesano.
Case resigned at the end of that year, but Berckes filed a lawsuit against the district for $5 million for his suspension. In turn, Montesano recommended tenure charges against Berckes in July 2018, the first steps to fire him. This prompted parents to speak out again at the August 2018 meeting.
The suit with Berckes was settled in February 2019, which saw the board agree to pay him his salary through June 30 of that year but also saw Berckes leave his job. The court battle cost the district nearly $80,000 in legal fees.
The next Secaucus Board of Education meeting is Sept. 16. For more information, go to sboe.org.
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