The Secaucus Board of Education voted 5-3-(1) to transfer previously suspended High School Principal Dr. Robert Berckes to an elementary school in the district.
Trustees Louis Giele, Kathleen McFarlane and Sharon Dellafave voted no, while Trustee Lance Bartletta abstained.
The ongoing controversy around the suspension of Berckes is regarding the way he handled an incident that allegedly involved a student bringing a pocketknife and marijuana onto school grounds.
Despite several members of the public protesting the transfer, the board voted to move Berckes to Clarendon Elementary School.
Superintendent of Secaucus Public Schools Jennifer Montesano, who refused an on-camera interview to discuss Berckes, who has already begun filing paperwork for a $5 million lawsuit against the school district, tried to assuage the public’s frustrations.
“When I make decisions, I do not make them lightly. I think over and over, and sometimes take too much time to think about how I’m going to make decisions. And the reason I do that is because they are important,” she said.
” … So I do want you to know that I understand that you have apprehensions and concerns, but please know that these decisions were not made quickly, they were made with many discussions with our administrative team.”
However, Giele took exception and said he was voting no on the transfers of Berckes and two other principals.
“Our superintendent has been in the district far too short of time to be in a position to fully evaluate the effectiveness of our principals and request these transfers,” he said.
“My no vote is not a reflection on the abilities and professionalism of these principals, but based on the needless disruption within the district which has already experienced enough this past school year.”
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli spoke calmly before the board, but said incredulously that he felt he “had been slapped in the face” when the board didn’t consult with him before announcing the transfers of Berckes and two other principals.
“By not getting an answer about the moving of principals, I kinda took it as a slap in the face. I’m not going to tell you who or how to move people, but I should have gotten a phone call.”
Additionally, Secaucus resident Donna Barabas asked the board several questions about the circumstances surrounding the suspension.
“I want to know how it is that now we are subject to a $5 million lawsuit by Dr. Berckes. I want to know how that happened, I want to know why the superintendent doesn’t answer any of this. Now are you going to answer my questions,” Barabas said.
But Stephen Fogarty, counsel for the school district, said he wouldn’t answer those questions, and in fact warned Barabas not to make any public inflammatory statements without being held liable.
“As I have said in my opening remarks if you ultimately say something that is defamatory against an employee then you may be held personally liable. So, likewise, the board must be respectful of the privacy rights of our employees,” he stated.
“While I can appreciate that you would like to know the answers to each and every one of the questions that you have asked, we’re not at liberty to respond to those questions.”
The majority of the board meeting streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed below: