The Montclair school district has hired a new business administrator and board secretary, filling the position formerly held by Nicholas Cipriano, who disappeared from district affairs in March without an explanation from administrators. 

The Montclair Board of Education approved the appointment of Christina Hunt with a salary set at $185,000 during its July 13 meeting, contingent upon a criminal history review, appropriate N.J. certification and personnel clearance, according to the meeting agenda. Hunt began in the position Thursday, July 14, according to the agenda.

The board did not reveal Hunt’s background, but a “Christina Hunt” served as the East Orange school district’s business administrator and board secretary through June 30, according to East Orange Board of Education meeting minutes

Messages left with the Montclair and East Orange school district business offices Wednesday were not returned. 

At the July 13 meeting, board member Eric Scherzer made a motion to table personnel matters, including the appointment of Hunt. He wanted the board to return to executive session to “have a more full discussion” on the matters. Board member Kathryn Weller-Demming seconded the motion. The seven other board members voted against the motion. 

Questions Scherzer had submitted in writing to district administrators after the July 7 board meeting — how many applicants were considered for the position, whom the personnel committee reviewed for the position, what were the applicant qualifications — had not yet been answered, he said at the July 13 meeting. 

“[The questions] are, I believe, required to be answered for us to do our due diligence,” he said. The responses are “absolutely necessary” for the board “to make an intelligent decision,” he added. 

Plus, the district must provide personnel files and applicant information for those considered for the position, Scherzer said, citing a 1990 decision by the commissioner of education regarding board member access to applicant information.

Horner v. Kingsway Regional High School found that Board of Education members must be granted access to the resumes and applications of candidates being considered for employment by the district.

The decision ruled that administrations must make available for review “the complete personnel files and applicant information of all persons considered for positions… during regular business hours within a reasonable time prior to the proposed board action.”

At the meeting, Scherzer asked school board legal counsel Isabel Machado whether the district was required to provide the documents. She did not directly respond to the question, saying she was not privy to what documents had or had not been provided to board members. 

Scherzer declined to answer Montclair Local’s questions about his remarks, citing confidential personnel matters. Machado did not respond to an email sent to her office last week asking whether the district was required to provide the documents. 

According to the Kingsway decision and a later decision, Beatty v. Board of Education of the Township of Chester, “a board member can have access, if requested, to the files of applicants for jobs, subject to reasonable restrictions set by board policy or by the chief,” Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said.

If board members do not get access to the documents, they can file a contested case with the commissioner of education, she said. 

But while they are entitled to review application materials, board members do have a limited role in hiring, according to a New Jersey School Boards Association article published in the organization’s quarterly magazine. Much of the hiring process takes place with the administration, including the interview process, the article says. 

“The chief school administrator is the educational leader of your district and has the education, certification and experience to make these important hiring recommendations,” the article says. “Board members do not have to rubber-stamp hiring; however, they must consider the administrator’s recommendations.”

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds did not respond to an email sent last week to his district address asking about the number of applicants for the position, and if and when he provided applicant materials to the board.

Cipriano was hired as the Montclair district’s business administrator and board secretary last summer, around the same time he was hired to conduct an investigation into a 32-page self-described “whistleblower” letter by Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV claiming an abusive work environment in Montclair schools. Cipriano replaced Emidio D’Andrea, one of the district employees he investigated. 

Ponds previously said he and Cipriano “had a relationship for five-plus years,” knowing each other from Cipriano’s time as superintendent at Wood-Ridge. Ponds is a former superintendent of schools for Moonachie, a neighbor of Wood-Ridge in Bergen County. 

The complete findings of Cipriano’s investigation remain confidential, but it found a disrespectful work environment that fostered negativity and cultural insensitivity, Ponds said at a Nov. 22 school board meeting. Cipriano was paid $28,930 for the investigation, according to an August 2021 bill report by the district

Cipriano was present at the March 2 Board of Education meeting, but he has not been at a board meeting since. He last responded to an email from Montclair Local on March 3, regarding school board election results. 

When Ponds announced in May that the district would be issuing 83 nonrenewal letters to make up for a $3 million deficit in its 2022-23 budget, he said previous assurances that the the district wouldn’t face budget problems had come from “former” Business Administrator Cipriano possibly the first public acknowledgment Cipriano and the district had parted ways.

When asked about Cipriano’s absence in May, Ponds said he was unable to comment on personnel matters.  

In April, the district hired an acting business administrator and board secretary, Paul Roth.

A former South Orange-Maplewood school district business administrator, Roth served from April through June at a rate of $835 per day. A listing for the permanent district business administrator and board secretary position was posted June 2 on the district’s hiring website.