Judge confirms arbitration decision reinstating Joseph Putrino as Renaissance principal
(COURTESY MAKERBOT VIA YOUTUBE)
A judge has confirmed an arbitration decision reinstating former Renaissance at Rand Middle School Principal Joseph Putrino at the school.
Tenure charges had been 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.
An Oct. 18, 2022, decision by arbitrator Joseph Licata ordered that Putrino be “immediately” reinstated as Renaissance principal and be provided back pay for a 120-day, no-pay suspension period.
While the district “sufficiently demonstrated” that Putrino “unwittingly showed an inappropriate video that offended a portion of the staff and some members of the public,” his dismissal from the district is “not consistent with just cause,” the arbitration decision says.
On Feb. 22, Judge Jodi Lee Alper, of Essex County Superior Court, confirmed the original arbitration decision after the school district requested that it be modified. The district, among other things, was specifically contesting the assignment of Putrino back to Renaissance.
The arbitration award got pushback from families in the district who rallied around the current principal, Maria Francisco, when they heard Putrino would be reinstated.
Now Putrino’s lawyers and the district's lawyers are working on a reinstatement timeline, he said. He 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. The case is in discovery.
David Cantor, the school district’s executive director of communications and community engagement, said Tuesday that the district is working with its attorney on the matter. He did not directly respond to questions about Alper’s ruling, the reinstatement timeline and additional details of the situation.
During a September 2020 convocation presentation to staff, Putrino screened a video made by Black comedian Josh Pray titled “Appreciate Teachers – A Father’s Apology.” Two minutes into the presentation, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds shut it down, after several staff members voiced concerns in a chat box.
The district then conducted an investigation into Putrino’s showing of the video, along with an investigation into the scheduling of staff at Renaissance, which led to a claim that there were too many teachers assigned to too few students, Putrino’s suit says.
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 his 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.
A year after the convocation, on Sept. 20, 2021, the district filed tenure charges against Putrino seeking his dismissal from the district, his 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 Robert M. Schwartz, one of Putrino’s lawyers. Schwartz is also chief counsel for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
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, 2022, and lasted through June 14, according to the suit. There were 11 hearing dates.
The arbitrator’s decision also highlighted the contrast between Putrino’s 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.”
Arbitrator 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 nontenured, Licata wrote. The two incidents showed “widely disparate treatment,” he added.
On Nov. 4, 2022, Putrino’s lawyers filed a complaint in Essex County Superior Court, asking the court to confirm the arbitration award. The complaint came two days after Ponds backed Francisco at a Montclair Board of Education meeting, saying he would do “everything legally possible” to keep her in her position at Renaissance.
On Jan. 4, the district's lawyers filed a motion seeking to file a counterclaim requesting that the award be modified to remove references to Clark and to remove the requirement that Putrino be reinstated at a specific school.
While the arbitration decision could not be appealed, the district could move to modify or vacate it. According to state statute N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8, a court may vacate an arbitration decision if the award “was procured by corruption, fraud or undue means.” The district had to take action within 90 days of the arbitration award, according to N.J.S.A. 2A:24-7.
On Feb. 22, Alper confirmed the arbitration award — Putrino is to be reinstated at Renaissance.
“As far as I know, the district is obligated to bring me back into the district, resolve any issues financially for me, and to also place me back at the Renaissance Middle School,” Putrino said.
His legal team is working with the district’s legal team to put together a timeline for his reinstatement, including necessary board approvals, he said.
“I'm happy with the decision,” Putrino said. “I'm looking forward to getting back to what I do best, and that's being a principal – working with families and kids in the district to bring the best experiences to Montclair.”
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 a Nov. 2 complaint, Schwartz Law Group, LLC, representing Putrino, demanded that the court confirm the arbitration decision, reinstate and restore Putrino as Renaissance principal, provide back pay, benefits and emoluments owed to date, and grant him any other relief the court finds “just and equitable.”
In a Jan. 4 brief, the district's lawyer, Isabel Machado, argued that Licata “exceeded his legal authority in deciding the specific assignment” of Putrino back to his role as principal and “exceeded his legal authority in making findings” about Clark, “who was not before the arbitrator.”
On the same day, Machado filed a motion “requesting that the arbitrator’s decision be modified to remove the references to the assistant principal and to remove any requirement that the Plaintiff be assigned to a specific school,” a brief in support of the motion says.
“The arbitrator’s decision in this matter must be modified because same includes evident mistakes, decides matters not submitted to him, demonstrates evident partiality, was procured by undue means, is imperfect in a matter of form, and exceeds the powers of the arbitrator,” the brief says.
In a Jan. 18 reply brief, Schwartz Law Group argued that Licata “did not exceed his authority” by comparing Putrino’s treatment to Clark’s and by reinstating Putrino “in a specific building-level assignment.” Again, the lawyers asked that the arbitration award be confirmed.
On Jan. 20, a virtual hearing was held. Details of the hearing were not available on the court’s website.
A month later, on Feb. 22, Alper confirmed the original arbitration award and denied the request of the school district to modify or vacate it.
On Nov. 2, students and parents spoke out in support of Francisco, the Renaissance at Rand Middle School principal, pleading for Francisco to continue in her position at the school. After more than 20 students and parents spoke at a school board meeting in her support, and an hour-and-a-half executive session, Ponds backed Francsciso.
“We're going to do everything legally possible to keep Ms. Francisco as the school principal at the Renaissance School,” he said.
Francisco declined to comment.
In November, she declined to comment on the arbitration decision but told Montclair Local she was “overwhelmed by the support, praise and encouragement from the amazing Renaissance students and parents.” She has been principal at Renaissance since summer 2021.