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Nepotism scandal that forced out big-money super of tiny Bergen district began with tip

Updated on October 12, 2017 at 1:21 PMPosted on October 12, 2017 at 12:58 PM

By Sara Jerde


NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

A nepotism scandal that led to the resignation of one of the state's highest-paid superintendents, who ran an obscure district in southern Bergen County for more than a decade, was sparked by an anonymous tip into her alleged conduct, the state says.

Dawn Fidanza, superintendent of the South Bergen Jointure Commission, submitted her resignation in the wake of a scathing state report that alleged she transferred her daughter, a district employee, from the transportation office to the business office without approval.

The admittedly foul-mouthed superintendent, who candidly told investigators that she was an "F-bomber" in the office, then took the remarkable step of personally putting stickers over cameras in the business office so they wouldn't record her daughter's movements, according to the investigation conducted by the state's Department of Education.

Dawn Fidanza

The state also alleged she used her position to try to influence supervisors' performance reviews of her daughter.

The district she ran, the South Bergen Jointure Commission, had only 276 students enrolled last school year. Yet in her role over the tiny district, she earns a base salary of $236,735, and was the eighth highest-paid superintendent in the state last year.

State officials did not immediately respond to a request for a calculation of what her monthly pension payments would be if she retired in the wake of the transfer scandal.

Formed in 1994, the district is a state-approved Board of Education that provides services to local school districts, including transportation to field trips and special education classes.

It is governed by a board of 14 school officials from the districts.

Fidanza submitted her resignation effective Dec. 31 and will be placed on leave effective Nov. 1. Board President Gregorio Maceri would not say whether it was a paid leave.

Before her leave, Fidanza will be "primarily" working in another location in the district, Maceri said. Maceri would not disclose what job Fidanza would be doing before she goes on leave.

Maceri confirmed the search to find an interim superintendent began last week, when the job was posted on Oct. 5.

Fidanza, who had just pulled into her driveway when approached by a reporter on Wednesday, pulled back out and drove off without comment.

Fidanza holds degrees from Pace University and Fordham University and was made superintendent of the South Bergen Jointure Commission in 2005, according to her public LinkedIn profile.


Fidanza has been a member of the Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund for more than 30 years, according to state pension records.

But after years at the top post of a Bergen County district, her conduct concerning her daughter, Julia Fidanza, who started as a transportation clerk on Dec. 1, 2015, was at the heart of the state investigation that led to her resignation.

State nepotism laws require a district to get approval if employing a relative of a top administrator.

For the initial hiring, Dawn Fidanza did get approval from the Executive County Superintendent, which is required by state law. She was advised that she was prohibited from having "direct or indirect authority, supervision or control" over her daughter, according to the state.

But Fidanza did not get approval from the district board when she transferred her daughter to the business office in early 2016. She also did not let the ECS know of the transfer, according to the investigators' report.

Fidanza then allegedly stuck adhesive labels on the lenses of security cameras in the district offices. A district employee told investigators that Fidanza told her she was covering the cameras so people wouldn't see the "comings and goings of her daughter."

Julia Fidanza's last day in the district was June 30. She earned $47,200, according to state pension records.

It's not clear if Julia Fidanza leaving the district and the investigation are related. Other details about the case are also unclear, such as when Dawn Fidanza submitted her resignation, when the board approved it and at what point it was decided she would be placed on leave.

South Bergen Jointure Commission offered public notice of the investigation's findings and posted an abbreviated version of the full report on its website.

But board agendas and meeting minutes that could provide insight into how the district handled the situation are not available on the district's website and can only be accessed by contacting the school business administrator.

The business adminstrator, Susan Cucciniello, acknowledged that she received a formal records request, but had not yet released the requested information by early Thursday afternoon.

The investigative unit that compiled the report chose not to notify local law enforcement about its findings, said David Saenz, Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The case was referred to the state Board of Examiners, which also has the power to bring law enforcement into the matter, as well as revoke or suspend an educator's certificates.

It's not clear whether the Board of Examiners has reviewed Fidanza's case.

For now, Fidanza is still listed as the district's superintendent on its website, where she says she is "very proud" of the district, and believes its students are given "the finest quality education available."

Sara Jerde may be reached at sjerde@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SaraJerde.

Have information about this story or something else we should be covering? Tell us: nj.com/tips

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Relatives employed when the nepotism regulations were put in place in 2011 can be grandfathered.  However, if someone falls in a category which is barred from employment the regulations can be lifted if a "thorough search" fails to locate any qualified alternative. 

If hired after a thorough search they must be approved by the superintendent in the case of schools, mayor in the case of town through a waiver. 

And when one has a waiver and is hired despite being related the chief administrator MUST be barred from directly or indirectly supervising the relative under the anti-nepotism policy if feasible, if not you must show that you have proper procedures in place.

I don't know about you all but I just don't believe that when the subpoenas start to come that this documentation even exists. 

The regulations define relative as spouse, civil union partner, domestic partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandparent, grandchild, son in law, daughter in law, stepparent, stepchild, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, half sister or those of the persons spose or domestic partner.

Hope they have any waivers, position descriptions, proof of all these thorough searches etc. because that is what the subpoenas will be asking for. 

Maybe if you start getting these folks off the Harrison Welfare and start competitively hiring.... and getting rid of these bogus positions for which we never see job postings yet always get filled.  Stop writing on here and start sending you questions to the proper channels. 

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