By TALIA WIENER
Two head custodians for Montclair public schools say they believe district officials set out to sabotage them and other employees — in the process leaving some school buildings filthy and in enough disrepair to endanger students and staff members.
The custodians’ claims, made in interviews with Montclair Local, support some of the many allegations made by Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV in a 32-page letter titled “The Price of Leadership.” Kelley, describing himself as a whistleblower, cites dozens of instances in which he says officials bullied or sought to undermine employees they deemed disloyal, engaged in racist or sexist treatment of staff, refused to deal with urgent maintenance issues and lied to state health investigators about facilities problems.
Kelley alleges students were put at unnecessary risk from asbestos, rodents, extreme cold and heat, and other hazards at buildings throughout the district. Many of the incidents he describes date to 2018 and 2019. Some are as recent as the days leading up to the April 12 reopening of elementary schools for hybrid learning. The letter omits discussion of a period from early 2020 through the start of March 2021, when Kelley was on military leave.
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Nishuane School head custodian Kimberly Raison and Charles H. Bullock School head custodian Robert Edwards both say they consented to having incidents involving them described in Kelley’s letter. Raison also said Kelley continues to come to work.
Raison and Kelley say that in late 2019, cutbacks in cleaning staff left Nishuane classrooms dirty enough to risk students’ health. Outgoing Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson confirms getting complaints of uncleaned classrooms as well. A kindergarten teacher says she believes dust from her classroom led to nodules on her vocal cords.
But some others dispute aspects of Kelley’s accounts. Kelley’s predecessor, former Buildings and Grounds Supervisor John Postas, denies a key aspect of Kelley’s claims — that his superiors gave him a list of employees to target with reprimands. Kelley also says Postas was fired for “inappropriate staff conduct and language” after using racial slurs and bullying employees; Postas acknowledges he faced such accusations but denies the behavior.
The manager of a night cleaning company, ACB Cleaning, denies Kelley’s claim he was “gravely offended” by comments then-Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann, now the facilities director for Madison public schools, made about custodial workers who lived in the country illegally. ACB Manager Julio Deza said that wouldn’t have applied to his own employees, who he said are all legal residents. And he said he wasn’t offended — “how Eschmann and others are accused for discrimination, I don’t see it.”
School officials say they’re aware of the letter, dated April 11 and addressed only “To Whom It May Concern.” Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the matter will be investigated by an outside entity, but has not commented further.
Kelley says his letter details only some of the “scope of terror and abuse [Montclair] students and staff have suffered.”
Kelley has not returned phone calls and emails seeking comment. Assertions of his that are referenced in this report — which only addresses some of his claims — are those he made in his letter.
His claims largely center on Postas, Eschmann, district Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea and current Director of Buildings and Grounds Anthony Bispo. Of those, only Postas has responded to requests for comment from Montclair Local. Eschmann, D’Andrea and Bispo have not responded to multiple voicemail and email messages from Montclair Local over the last three weeks.
D’Andrea and Bispo remain on the job. Robertson, who will step down from her post as president of the MEA this summer to become secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association, said the union has asked the school board and superintendent why D’Andrea and Bispo haven’t been placed on leave during the investigation, and hasn’t received a response. She said employees being investigated for misconduct were put on leave “in every instance I’ve ever seen until now.”
Raison said she hasn’t seen or heard from Bispo in weeks. D’Andrea was at the school board’s May 5 meeting, where Ponds acknowledged the letter.
Claims of ‘sabotage’ at Nishuane
Kelley says in February of 2019, when he was still a line worker at Nishuane, Eschmann and Postas told him he could have head custodian Raison’s job if he helped get rid of her — “they informed me she had a mental illness and all she needed was a little push.” Kelley says the two told him they didn’t believe she was up to the job, and they’d feel better with a man in the role. And Kelley says the two told him they needed a Black man to formalize complaints against her, as the only Black female custodian in the district.
“As a white man, I can’t take this on, it has to be done stealthily,” Kelley claims Eschmann told him. Postas is also white.
Kelley and Raison also say that after Kelley became supervisor, Eschmann placed another line custodian at Nishuane to clash with her.
Raison says she felt she’d been treated unfairly, but didn’t know why until she spoke to Kelley. This year, she filed a union grievance against Eschmann, she said.
“You’re around people who have these high positions, ya know, and they have it out for you,” Raison said. “Why, because I’m Black? Why, because I’m gay? Why, because I’m a woman?”
Postas acknowledged to Montclair Local he wanted Raison out of the job — but denies he made inappropriate comments about her. He said she couldn’t perform her duties. For instance, he said, “you don’t call in sick during a snowstorm when there is stuff to be done at a school.”
According to Kelley’s letter and Raison, D’Andrea and Eschmann heavily cut back on custodial staff at Nishuane in late 2019, telling those remaining “just pull the garbage.” Kelley says D’Andrea told him: “It saves us money, and they will blame Kim [Raison], not us.”
Kelley says Nishuane teachers began sending images and complaints of dirty classrooms to him, Robertson, Eschmann, D’Andrea and Nishuane Principal Jill McLaughlin. Robertson said the MEA brought complaints to the attention of district leadership at the time. Raison said it was a “constant complaint.”
“It was out of my hands,” she said.
Kelley says after cleaning staff was pulled back, teachers told him by email students were missing class due to sickness. He said Nishuane nurse Grace Alfaro reported higher numbers of children with flu- or strep-like symptoms than she remembered seeing for years. Alfaro hasn’t responded to emails sent this week seeking comment.
Teacher Marissa May told Montclair Local by email she believes having an unclean classroom made her ill.
“I began having a hoarse, raspy voice and almost no voice by the end of the week on a consistent basis,” she said. Her doctor found vocal cord nodules “likely due to [a] dusty environment and poor ventilation from being in an old building,” she said.
May said she asked for more frequent cleanings and to have a hole in a closet sealed off to prevent dust and asbestos from falling out. She also asked for an air purifier, she said.
“I was told I can purchase an air purifier for my classroom if I chose to do so,” May said. She didn’t say who told her that.
Kelley says McLaughlin told him she was “swamped” with complaints from teachers, but Eschmann refused requests for another cleaner. McLaughlin has not responded to emails seeking comment.
Kelley says in November 2019, the heat in the gym was “unbearable” even with the windows open, and the thermostat was reading 110 degrees daily. He says Eschmann told him: “I am not fixing the boiler. F— the boiler. We just fixed the gym windows, so they can open the windows.”
It was not until staff members began calling out sick and being hospitalized, Kelley says, that Eschmann called in specialists to fix the boiler.
Kelley says Nishuane teacher Nilaja Mussa reported her classroom had no heat at all. Mussa has not responded to an email inquiry sent to her district address this week. Raison told Montclair Local she saw students and staff at Nishuane wearing coats in classrooms to stay warm.
Kelley alleges similar treatment of Edwards, the head custodian at Bullock School. Kelley says D’Andrea and Eschmann wanted retaliation against Edwards for grievances filed previously against Postas and Eschmann — though Edwards declined to discuss any grievances with Montclair Local.
Kelley says in November 2019, Eschmann and D’Andrea planned to remove contracted cleaners from Bullock to sabotage Edwards, also the leader of the Montclair Head Custodians Education Association. According to Kelley, that was prevented when Bullock Principal Nami Kuwabara requested the cleaner remain at the school. Kuwabara forwarded Montclair Local’s questions to the school district’s central office.
Edwards spoke briefly to Montclair Local April 27. He said he couldn’t address the full scope of Kelley’s letter, but that incidents mentioning him matched his experience.
“I’ve been in this district 27 years and I know I’ve pretty much given it my all, so to hear the stuff that’s actually being said is kind of sad,” he said. Edwards said he hopes for a “thorough and fair” investigation. At the time, Edwards said, he hadn’t yet been contacted by the district.
‘Simply lost it’
Kelley alleges Eschmann often targeted female employees. Kelley says in September 2019, D’Andrea “asked me to assist him in correcting an unfortunate string of events that had gone terribly bad.” Kelley said he was told D’Andrea had met with Eschmann, restorative justice coordinator Gayl Shepard and an MEA representative in the restorative justice classroom and office suite at Montclair High School. Shepard asked D’Andrea and Eschmann to perform an air quality test in the classroom, which had been dormant for a year, Kelley says.
“Emidio [D’Andrea] informed me that he and John [Eschmann] initially lied and said ‘that one had already been performed and the room had cleared all tests,’” Kelley writes in his letter. When Shepard asked to see the test results, Eschmann “simply lost it,” charging toward Shepard and berating her while making violent hand gestures, Kelley writes. When Eschmann left the room, D’Andrea “apologized profusely,” the letter says.
D’Andrea asked Kelley to make sure all of Shepard’s furniture was moved to a new work space in the library, but restorative justice furniture for other schools was left on loading docks for months, despite inquiries from principals, Kelley says.
Shepard told Montclair Local by email the statements in Kelley’s letter regarding restorative justice are “indeed accurate,” but didn’t address them individually. Shepard also said Kelley’s accounts are “verifiable via email correspondence and written documentations,” but she declined to provide that documentation to Montclair Local.
Kelley says while he was still a line custodian, and Postas was in the supervisor job Kelley now holds, Postas confided in him that Eschmann had identified a number of custodians to be reprimanded and sabotaged.
Kelley also alleges that ultimately Postas was “investigated for using racial slurs to describe [district] custodians, harassment, bullying and sabotage of Montclair Board Education custodians.” Postas told Montclair Local that he did face such allegations, but they were “ridiculous” and “unfounded.” Ponds confirmed to Montclair Local that Postas’ last day working in the district was June 30, 2019, but said he was not able to provide details on the reason for termination as it’s a personnel matter.
When Kelley replaced Postas, he said, Eschmann and D’Andrea provided him with the same list of names and told him that it would be less controversial for Kelley, a Black man, to be the one to reprimand other custodians of color.
But Postas told Montclair Local that he never received a list of staff members to target from Eschmann, and that he did not speak to Kelley about a list of that nature. He said he simply agreed with his superiors that certain employees weren’t performing their duties as needed.
Eschmann, Postas said, was “very matter of fact” and “knew what he wanted to get done.” Custodial staff could be reluctant to do work, but Eschmann “pushed people to do it,” he said.
“You have to realize, you’re in a district with 11 schools and 14 buildings, and there’s many fires to put out down there,” Postas said.
Postas describes his termination as the result of a grievance filed with the Montclair Head Custodians Education Association by former Northeast School head custodian Stephen Yekel, involving a situation in early 2019 in which Postas took a photograph of Yekel asleep during the school day and sent the image to Eschmann. Yekel was later arrested and charged with sexual assault against a minor; school officials have said no Montclair student was involved. His case has not yet gone to trial.
Robertson told Montclair Local the MEA filed an unhealthy workplace complaint about Postas’ behavior to staff, but says the union never heard back from the district.
Kelley also claims Eschmann, D’Andrea, Postas and Bispo all used racially motivated speech on multiple occasions. He said Deza, manager of the ACB Cleaning Co. contracted for nighttime work, “felt gravely offended at Mr. Eschmann’s jokes about undocumented illegals and posed narratives about undocumented persons as if all Hispanic people were undocumented.”
But Deza told Montclair Local that he has not felt discriminated against by Eschmann or D’Andrea. Deza said he does not remember talking to Kelley about any jokes of Eschmann’s, and said comments made by Eschmann may have been misconstrued.
Deza said he thinks some people claim discrimination when they’re only being held accountable for “laziness.” He said district custodial staffers had a habit of pushing off work to ACB.
He also said that D’Andrea has always been helpful and respectful to him.
“When I have any complaints about one of the employees from the district, he heard what I was saying,” Deza said. “He tried to work with both parties.”
Kelley says Eschmann and D’Andrea told New Jersey Department of Health officials they didn’t know about a spate of issues investigated after a Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) complaint was made by staff at Montclair High School in 2019. Robertson said she’d been at the meeting with the DOH investigators and heard Eschmann and D’Andrea say the same.
Kelley claims as a result, complaints were downgraded; Robertson said she doesn’t know if that’s the case.
The MHS complaint, as described by Kelley, detailed broken unit ventilators, failed mechanical ventilation in several classrooms, bathroom and roof leaks, mold, asbestos and rodent sightings.
But Kelley says he’d personally sent Eschmann, D’Andrea and then-interim Superintendent Nathan Parker an email detailing a rodent infestation in November — a copy is included in Kelly’s letter — and included a report from Alliance Pest Control. The company has not responded to calls for comment over the last week.
And Kelley says Parker’s predecessor, then-Superintendent Kendra Johnson, had sent a “scathing” email to Eschmann, D’Andrea and others on May 13, 2019, about the same building issues in the PEOSH complaint. Kelley says that on Oct. 22, 2019, the day the district was notified of the complaint, Eschmann read Johnson’s email aloud to Kelley and Buildings and Grounds Department secretary Caroline Bogner — suspecting Johnson had been the one to file the complaint.
Johnson has not responded to multiple emails sent to her current work email address with Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. Montclair Local has filed a public records request seeking the May 13, 2019, email and is awaiting a response.
Kelley alleges D’Andrea instructed him to reprimand any custodians who shared information with the investigators. While Kelley conducted his rodent investigation, he says, Eschmann told him to “stick to making sure I have enough broomsticks in my custodial closets mother—–.”
Robertson also says Eschmann “threatened that if people continued to report [building issues] he would be forced to take away their refrigerators and microwaves, and possibly have to bring in a private company rather than our custodians.”
She said the investigators cited the fact that asbestos removal had been done by people uncertified for the work.
The investigators also said “they had some concerns when they were interviewing people that there seemed to be a level of fear regarding the buildings and grounds leadership,” Robertson said.
Kelley says he told investigators facilities issues were districtwide, and that he made a formal complaint.
The state Department of Health said the PEOSH case remains open and declined comment. Montclair Local has filed a public records request seeking any complaints issued.
Kelley said another PEOSH complaint was made at Bradford School as well, though his letter doesn’t describe it. Robertson confirmed a complaint was filed but said she didn’t remember the details.
Needed repairs in 2021
As recently as the run-up to schools reopening this year, Kelley says, Bispo and D’Andrea ignored work needed to make school buildings safe, blaming custodial staff for slow repairs.
“Emidio and Anthony have attempted to ‘punt’ (not spend money) on repairs … but were overridden by [Ponds’] desire to upgrade our facilities to meet the needs and safety standards of the law and our current context,” Kelley writes.
The condition of the school buildings had been a sticking point for the MEA, when members refused to return for a planned start to hybrid learning at elementary schools in January, citing coronavirus safety concerns. The district sued the union, alleging an illegal teachers strike. The parties settled, with teachers agreeing to come back to buildings, and the district agreeing to provide more information on facilities work as well as conduct walk-throughs of school buildings.
Most pressingly at issue during that conflict: whether the school system had done enough to mitigate nearly districtwide issues with ventilation in schools. The MEA had also cited other concerns; for instance, it said more than 100 sinks were faulty.
Robertson said during negotiations “what I know is that we kept hitting a roadblock when asking for documentation and paperwork.” But in the time since, she said, the MEA has been satisfied schools passed safety checklists, and the union has done walk-throughs of all buildings other than Montclair High School and its annex. The high school is set to welcome back students May 19.
Kelley alleges Bispo let a fire panel at Bradford go unfixed for three weeks in March, leaving custodians constantly checking for fires. He says when he alerted Ponds, the superintendent immediately approved a work order to fix it. He also says Bispo didn’t attend to repairs KCG Air Conditioning identified at the Developmental Learning Center for a month; KCG Air Conditioning has not responded to an email inquiry sent May 9.
Raison said she’d submitted a work order concerning asbestos in a classroom closet, but Bispo had not taken action for more than a week, another incident Kelley describes in his letter. Kelley called the contractor and had the repairs completed by April 10, two days before students were to return to in-person learning, Raison and Kelley say.
Raison told Montclair that she thinks Bispo is continuing the sabotage against her that she alleges was started by his predecessor.
“It’s not John Eschmann, but you know what I mean, we’re going down the same road,” Raison said.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Kelley declined to describe union grievances; Montclair Local has not reached Kelley directly. Edwards declined to describe union grievances that Kelley asserted in his letter Edwards filed.