By TALIA WIENER
The investigation into a self-described whistleblower’s claims of an abusive work environment in Montclair schools has been completed — though school administrators don’t plan to announce any results for weeks. And the man hired as an outside consultant to run the investigation is now the district’s business administrator and school board secretary.
Former Wood-Ridge schools Superintendent Nicholas Cipriano succeeded Emidio D’Andrea after the Montclair school board approved his appointment Monday night, immediately working the meeting in his new capacity even as some community members criticized his selection.
Cipriano had been tasked in June with investigating claims Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV made in a 32-page April letter, alleging abusive treatment of employees and severe neglect of facilities by multiple former and current school officials, including D’Andrea. By then, D’Andrea had announced plans to retire at the end of the school year. D’Andrea last attended a public Board of Education meeting May 17.
The position Kelley held, of buildings and grounds supervisor, appears to be open, according to a job listing by the district. The position of director of buildings and grounds — which has been held by Anthony Bispo, another of the officials Kelley accused — is currently listed as “TBA” on the district’s “Central Office Who’s Who” webpage. Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds had not returned a message, left Tuesday, seeking information on when or whether those positions are vacant, and whether Kelley and Bispo are in other roles. Emails to Bispo’s and Kelley’s Montclair schools email addresses Tuesday morning had not been returned. Neither resulted in an automated bounce-back message.
Ponds had previously resisted calls from the Montclair Education Association to name the investigator publicly, only saying the investigation would be handled by an “outside entity,” but the school district provided Montclair Local with a copy of Cipriano’s June 22 contract. His identity as the investigator was first made public in an Aug. 16 story on MontclairLocal.news.
Ponds, in an email to Montclair Local, said there was no conflict in hiring Cipriano as the business administrator. The superintendent said Cipriano had wrapped up the investigation before he was asked to take the new role. He didn’t say specifically when either of those things happened. He also said he’d “report out on recommendations from the investigation later in September, as my focus is on opening schools.”
“Additionally, we checked with our legal counsel to make sure that we did not violate any rules or regulations,” Ponds wrote. “As there is a dearth of business administrators available, we are excited to have Mr. Cipriano join our team. He is highly qualified to support our district in this role.”
Ponds said at the board meeting 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.
“I was blessed for it to happen to us twice that he said yes,” Ponds said at the meeting, referencing Cipriano’s roles first as the investigator and then as the board administrator. “He’s a man of high character, a man that I respect. A man that, knowing that we’ve done some work together, will do great for Montclair.”
But some community members speaking at the school board meeting Monday weren’t satisfied. Parent Melanie Robbins said she wanted to know Cipriano’s qualifications that led him to be hired as the investigator.
“Why was this not done by a group of diverse individuals who are impacted by the issues that were reported?” Robbins said. “How is it OK to then offer this person a job that he had just investigated? This seems to be nepotism, pure and simple, and it’s just unacceptable.”
The selection of Cipriano as board administrator has “further eroded” parent Lani Sommer-Padilla’s confidence in the Montclair school administration, she said at the meeting.
“Something isn’t right here, and we pay more than enough in taxes to not have to deal with this,” Sommer-Padilla said. “I will politely say ‘incompetence.’”
Ponds during the meeting did not respond to public comments regarding Cipriano’s selection.
The superintendent, at a May Board of Education meeting, pushed back on a request from the Montclair Education Association to publicly name the investigator, saying, “Let us do our work so we can do this thoughtfully and meaningfully, and let’s not put pressure on our investigators. That is not safe and that is not right.”
In Cipriano’s contract to investigate Kelley’s claims, his compensation was set at $150 per hour.
Cipriano resigned as superintendent of the Wood-Ridge school district in February, officials in that district said at the time. His resignation became effective June 30, but he was granted immediate leave in February under the Family and Medical Leave Act, officials said.
Cipriano had not responded to a voicemail left with the business office or an email sent to his district address on Tuesday morning.
Kelley’s letter was detailed in a May 12 report by Montclair Local that included interviews with several of the people connected to dozens of incidents he described. He 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. 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.
His claims largely centered on D’Andrea, Bispo, former Buildings and Grounds Supervisor John Postas and former Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann, now the facilities director for Madison public schools. Of those, only Postas has returned messages in the last several months from Montclair Local, acknowledging Kelley’s claim he was fired after being accused of “inappropriate staff conduct and language,” but denying the behavior.