An arbitrator has ruled that former Renaissance at Rand Principal Joseph Putrino must be reinstated in that post, Putrino’s lawyer told Montclair Local. 

Tenure charges were filed by the Montclair school district against Putrino, who was placed on administrative leave more than two years ago, after he showed a video to staff that some found offensive.

But the district’s treatment of his case was determined to be inconsistent with its handling of another incident and therefore unjust, Robert M. Schwartz, Putrino’s lawyer, said of the Oct. 18 arbitration decision.

“I'm very pleased with the outcome,” Putrino told Montclair Local on Friday. “And I'm excited to get back to doing what I do best, which is being a principal and working with kids and families.”

Putrino is also suing the Montclair school district for filing the tenure charges, which he argues were “politically motivated and unwarranted” and made in retaliation for his objections to the district’s plan for in-person instruction at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

On Tuesday, David Cantor, the district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, said the district was unable to comment on the arbitration decision or Putrino’s lawsuit, citing personnel matters and ongoing litigation. 

According to his LinkedIn profile, Putrino became principal at Renaissance in July 2018. But he has a long history in Montclair schools – he began working in the district in 2000. 

He was principal at Glenfield Middle School and Northeast School, assistant principal at Hillside School and a science teacher at Renaissance, the profile says. 

At the time he was placed on leave, he was also president of the Montclair Principals Association, according to his suit against the district.

In late August 2020, Putrino was asked by schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, via his secretary, to make a presentation at the annual convocation for staff, something he had done in previous years, the suit says. 

After putting together the presentation, Putrino asked to meet with Ponds to review it, as was previously required by the district’s prior superintendents, the suit says. Ponds began working in the district July 1, 2020. 

The superintendent declined the meeting, the suit says.

Putrino began his convocation presentation on Sept. 2, 2020 by screening a video made by Black comedian Josh Pray titled “Appreciate Teachers – A Father’s Apology” to more than 1,100 staff members, the suit says. In the video, Pray apologizes and thanks teachers for their dedication after the pandemic hit and schools went to remote-only learning.  

Two minutes into the presentation, Ponds shut it down, after several staff members voiced concerns in the chat box. Ponds then made a “statement to the effect that racism would not be tolerated in the district, insinuating that the video shown by the plaintiff was racist,” the suit says.

Afterward, Putrino was asked to meet with Ponds and told he should bring representation, the suit says. During the 20-minute meeting, Damen Cooper, director of human resources, gave Putrino a letter stating that he was being placed on administrative leave, effective immediately. Putrino asked why the action was being taken, but was not given any “clear rationale,” the suit says.

At the Montclair Board of Education meeting held the evening of the presentation, Putrino was replaced by Major Jennings, then vice principal at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. Jennings is now principal at Buzz Aldrin.

At the time, the Montclair Branch of the NAACP demanded that the school board take action to “address the racist and offensive video presented by Putrino.” The group pointed to a suit against Putrino in 2019 by six Black teachers at Glenfield that alleged they were passed over for additional teaching opportunities in favor of white candidates while Putrino was principal there. That case was settled out of court in February 2021

“Although some district personnel did not view the Josh Pray video as funny, claiming that it negatively depicted African Americans, many viewed the video as what it was: a comedy that made light of the difficulties parents experienced while home-schooling their children during the school closures in the spring of 2020,” the suit says.

In a statement and a video released three days after Putrino gave the presentation, Pray said that he was blindsided by the news that the video was shown and a principal removed due to its “offensive nature,” and that he was "bewildered as to why his race was brought into the conversation."

Pray said that although he spoke with Putrino and his legal team, no one from the Montclair district had reached out to him to inquire about the “intent of the specific video or his mission.”

Parents rallied around Putrino after he was placed on leave. The Renaissance Parent Teacher Association and a group of Renaissance parents asked for an “open dialogue, and communication between the district and families and teaching staff” about Putrino’s status, along with other issues of importance to the school, according to a letter they sent to the district. The letter was signed by more than 85 parents.

Parent Beth Calamia was the PTA president at Renaissance when Putrino was placed on leave. She also testified on behalf of Putrino during the arbitration.

“I felt that it was frivolous,” Calamia said of the tenure charges brought by the district. “I was always on Dr. Putrino’s side.”

Putrino was “an excellent principal who did a lot for the school in a short amount of time,” she said.

“Did everybody love him?” she said. “No, but he's not the person that Dr. Ponds made him out to be.”

District Investigation

After the convocation, the district conducted an investigation into Putrino’s showing of the video, the suit says. But the investigation was lacking, according to the suit — those conducting the investigation did not speak with Putrino about why he showed the video, contact Pray about his intent in making the video, or reach out to staff members to get their reaction to the video, among other things. 

The district also investigated the scheduling of staff at Renaissance, which led to a claim that there were too many teachers assigned to too few students, the suit says. But the schedule used for in-person instruction during the 2020-21 year was the same schedule that had been used the prior year, which had been approved by the prior superintendent, according to the suit.

Putrino was not contacted regarding the scheduling claim by the district, the suit says. The district referred to documents accessible to Jennings, which the suit claims did not reflect Putrino’s schedule, but one that had been modified after he was placed on leave. 

The scheduling claim also seemed to have been decided only days after Putrino was placed on leave, the suit says. On Sept. 7, 2020 Jennings sent an email to Ponds at 5:08 p.m. showing scheduling issues he had come across in his first few days in the position. Twenty-five minutes later, Ponds responded to Jennings’ email, stating “outstanding job,” the suit says. 

The investigation into the scheduling claims resulted in a report that was shared with Putrino in October or November 2020 with mistakes and omissions “to deliberately mislead and bolster the claim of wrongdoing” by Putrino, the suit says.

Putrino’s suit refers to the scheduling claim, along with the whole post-convocation investigation, as “a sham.” Putrino remained on administrative leave for the duration of the 2020-21 school year, according to the suit. 

A year after the convocation, on Sept. 20, 2021, the district filed tenure charges against Putrino seeking his dismissal from the district, the suit says. The charges contained three allegations — the first related to affirmative action complaints made by staff members alleging disparate treatment at Renaissance, the second related to the Pray video, and the third related to Putrino’s scheduling of teachers and classes. 

When the district filed the charges, Putrino was suspended without pay for 120 days, but the pay resumed after that period was up, according to Schwartz, Putrino’s lawyer. 

A month later, the district certified the charges with the commissioner of education, though it later dropped the charge related to the affirmative action complaints. Arbitration hearings began Feb. 18 of this year and lasted through June 14, according to the suit. There were 11 hearing dates. 

Reinstatement Ordered

In an Oct. 18 decision, arbitrator Joseph Licata ruled in favor of Putrino and ordered that he be reinstated as Renaissance principal, according to Schwartz. The district is also required to back-pay Putrino for the 120-day, no-pay suspension period, Schwartz said. 

The 134-page arbitration report, considered “a lengthy decision,” will be available online in a few months on the Department of Education website, Schwartz said. 

“We thought that the charges were unjustified from the get-go,” the attorney said. “We said as much in the beginning, but the board, for some reason, just decided to go ahead with this.”

Schwartz is also chief counsel for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Putrino’s reinstatement as principal of Renaissance is supposed to be effective immediately, Schwartz said, and he’s heard the matter will be on the school board’s Nov. 2 agenda.

Putrino is not mentioned in the school board’s agenda for the Nov. 2 meeting. But personnel matters, late additions and addendums to the agendas are often posted to the district website closer to or after the meeting.

Contrasting Situations

Licata could have left wiggle room when it came to how Putrino was placed back in the district, but he didn’t, Schwartz said.

“The order from the arbitrator is for him to be reinstated to Renaissance,” the attorney said. “We're not going to accept anything less than that.”

While the arbitration decision cannot be appealed, the district could move to modify or vacate it, Schwartz said. According to state statute N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8, the court may vacate the arbitration decision if the award “was procured by corruption, fraud or undue means.” The district would have to take action within 90 days of the arbitration award, according to N.J.S.A. 2A:24-7.

Putrino’s arbitration process and decision clearly followed the law, Schwartz said. 

“We had an 11-day hearing in which the arbitrator gave each party all the time it needed to present their evidence,” he said. “After briefs were filed, after extensive arguments were made, he filed his 134-page decision.”

According to Putrino’s suit against the district, Licata’s decision highlighted the contrast between his situation and that of another district administrator.

On May 10, 2021, Reginald Clark, Montclair High School assistant principal, sent out an email to the school community honoring American-born Israeli ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane for Jewish Heritage Month. Community members and local religious leaders were deeply offended by the email, describing Kahane as a “racist, violent terrorist.”

According to the suit, Clark, who is Black, was asked only to offer a public apology, which he did in a follow-up email to the school community. Ponds followed up Clark’s apology with his own letter of apology, saying the email “included information that was not researched or vetted properly.”

But Putrino, who is white, was “publicly criticized” by Ponds, the suit says. The superintendent refused to accept Putrino’s apology for any offense the video caused, immediately placed him on leave, barred him from school property, shut off his access to school communications and filed tenure charges seeking his dismissal, the suit says.

Licata found that Putrino should suffer no greater penalty than that faced by Clark, the suit says. Plus, Putrino was “a twenty-year educator with an unblemished record,” while Clark was non-tenured, Licata wrote, according to the suit. The two incidents showed “disparate treatment,” he wrote.

And the video Putrino showed only offended some, while Clark’s email offended all, Licata wrote.

'Pulled the plug'

“There is no one who could reasonably express a reaction other than outrage to the Kahane publication,” he wrote. “Kahane is a documented racist and known terrorist.”

Licata also faulted the district for how it handled Putrino’s showing of the video, according to his suit. While Putrino handled the convocation issue “appropriately,” the district did otherwise, Licata wrote. Had the district done several things differently — avoided making public statements condemning the video as racist and promising quick action, conducted an investigation that took Putrino’s record into account, considered the viewpoint opposite those who were offended by the video and addressed the matter in private rather than public — “it would have allowed for everyone concerned to move on,” Licata wrote, according to the suit.

“Instead, Arbitrator Licata stated that the defendant ‘pulled the plug’ on plaintiff ‘almost immediately’ making ‘public statements of a conclusory and reputationally damaging nature’ rendering his ‘dismissal . . . etched in stone,’” the suit says.

Safety Questions

Putrino argues in the suit that Ponds “exaggerated the negative reactions” to the video and used the reactions as “an opportunity to retaliate” for Putrino’s “health- and safety-based objections” to the district’s in-person reopening plans.

During summer 2020, Putrino, in his role with the Principals Association, and union members reached out to Ponds with questions and to hear about safety protocols for the return to in-person learning in September 2020, the suit says. 

After not receiving a response, the association sent Ponds a series of questions about the return to in-person. When it still had not received a response nearly a week later, Putrino sent a letter to Ponds formally requesting a response to the group’s questions. Putrino received no response, according to the suit.

He sent another letter to Ponds on Aug. 12, 2020, again asking for details of the reopening and stating that “without a reply to these concerns by tomorrow, with real answers, all MPA members will only work from home.”

Putrino and other district administrators were then invited to a meeting with Ponds on Aug. 19, 2020, during which Ponds told the administrators to “stop asking questions and ‘just lead,’” the suit says.

Putrino’s suit is currently in discovery. He is seeking payment of all damages, “including punitive damages, if applicable, interest, costs of the suit, including reasonable attorney’s fees, plus any other relief, which the court deems just and equitable.”

“The district’s actions depicted plaintiff to be a racist and were widely reported by the press and caused and continue to cause plaintiff extensive reputational harm,” the suit says.