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Renaissance Middle School
FILE PHOTO Renaissance Middle School.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Parents at Renaissance Middle School want answers regarding the suspension of Principal Joseph Putrino in September, and more transparency from school officials.

Putrino was put on administrative leave following a Zoom start-of-school convocation on Sept. 2 where he showed a YouTube video of comedian Josh Pray doing a monologue about the underappreciation of teachers during remote learning.

Superintendent Jonathan Ponds stopped the video after several staff members voiced concerns in the chat box. 

District officials and several staff members deemed the video to be inappropriate, and Putrino was put on leave as of the next day. Major Jennings, previously the assistant principal at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, is serving as interim principal. 

District officials would not comment on Putrino’s status with the district, citing personnel reasons. 

Putrino was last paid by the district on Oct. 15, according to his most recent pay stub obtained through an Open Public Records Act request. The pay was $5,139 for the pay period Oct. 1 through Oct. 15. 

As of Nov. 2, Putrino’s LinkedIn page indicates that he is still employed with the Montclair school district, and his name is still listed in the staff directory on the district website.

Now, the Renaissance Parent Teacher Association and a group of Renaissance parents are asking 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.

Beth Calamia, president of the Renaissance PTA, said Jennings is doing a good job, but does not have the same in-depth knowledge of how Renaissance functions. 

“In these incendiary times, the removal of Dr. Putrino, days before the start of the school year, as the principal of Renaissance Middle School has drawn further attention to this need. Our school lost its leader and advocate at a time when his familiarity with RMS history and culture would have helped families navigate through the difficult circumstances of the pandemic,” the letter read. It also called for open dialogue.

The letter voiced its support for Renaissance teachers and staff, Putrino and his family, Jennings and all those who were offended or concerned by the video. And it called for an open and honest dialogue about race in the future.

Calamia said parents were particularly concerned with how to discuss Putrino’s suspension with their children.

Renaissance parent Elizabeth Cornwell said 86 parents had signed in support of the letter as of Friday, Oct. 30. However, she said, because the issue is divisive, a number of the parents did not feel comfortable speaking openly about it. 

Calamia said she had a productive conversation with Ponds and Jennings on Monday, Nov. 2, not specifically about Putrino, but on the need for more transparency between the district and parents on key issues. 

In a statement released just after the video was shown on Sept. 3, the Montclair NAACP called for action to be taken, and alleged that Putrino had a history of complaints about racially insensitive actions in the school district.  

“The Montclair Branch of the NAACP is demanding immediate action by the Montclair Board of Education to address the racist and offensive video presented by Principal Joseph Putrino at today’s district Zoom Meeting,” the NAACP officials said in the statement.

The organization did not comment on specific incidents or complaints. However, during Putrino’s time as principal at Glenfield Middle School, six Black educators filed a lawsuit against the school alleging they had been passed over for promotions and additional classroom work in favor of white educators. 

Officials with the Montclair Principals Association, of which Putrino had been the chair before he was put on leave, said they had no knowledge of the video before it was shown. 

Pray issued a statement in response to Putrino’s suspension criticizing the district for its perception of the video, and for using it as justification for the suspension.