By TALIA WIENER and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Montclair school officials say they’re aware of a buildings and grounds supervisor’s allegations of a years-long pattern of “employee discrimination and criminal sabotage” of district buildings — abuses he says repeatedly put students at risk of health hazards.
Some of the allegations are about incidents the supervisor, Robert H. Kelley IV, says happened just days before elementary schools opened for hybrid learning in April. They involve multiple current and former school officials.
They’re laid out in a 30-page letter titled “The Price of Leadership,” signed by Kelley and addressed only “To Whom it May Concern.” It’s not clear who the original recipients are. Montclair Local has so far been unable to reach Kelley, but spoke to two other custodial staff members who verified they spoke directly to Kelley about the document when he was preparing it, and consented to having incidents involving them detailed. Kelley describes the letter as a whistleblower complaint and says he’s made another prior to it.
Both Superintendent Jonathan Ponds and Board of Education President Latifah Jannah told Montclair Local they were aware of the letter, and it was under investigation. At a school board meeting May 5, Ponds said that investigation would be handled by “an outside person, not by someone in the district.”
The letter was dated April 11 and surfaced in at least one Montclair-focused Facebook group in the weeks after, posted by an individual other than Kelley; that post has been taken down. The letter alleges instances of racist and sexist treatment of employees, bullying and “sabotage” tactics meant to undermine custodial employees deemed problematic or disloyal to superiors, refusals to deal with urgent maintenance issues, and cases of district employees lying to state health investigators. Some of the incidents it describes date back to 2018; others are said to be as recent as the days leading up to the letter’s writing.
The upshot, Kelley alleges, is students were put at unnecessary risk from asbestos, rodents, extreme cold and heat, and other hazards at buildings throughout the district.
Montclair Local is continuing its reporting into Kelley’s letter, which details dozens of alleged incidents involving many parties. Individuals with firsthand knowledge of the incidents it describes can contact email@example.com.
“I am sorry but the atrocities committed against our students and staff in the previous years by the aforementioned senior leaders must never be allowed to happen again,” Kelley wrote.
The allegations are compiled through the use of what Kelley describes as “an over 300 page diary” created during his tenure as supervisor. The document largely omits discussion of a period from early 2020 through March of 2021, when Kelley was on military leave.
The condition of school buildings had been a sticking point between the district and Montclair Education Association, when members refused to return for a planned start of a hybrid learning schedule in January. Late that month, the MEA said in a statement its records showed 164 sinks in disrepair, continued serious concerns with ventilation and a variety of other issues. The school district sued the MEA, alleging an illegal teachers’ strike. The parties ultimately settled, with MEA members agreeing to return in exchange for more detailed information on facilities upgrades and maintenance, as well as walkthroughs of school buildings.