Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds. KATE ALBRIGHT/FILE PHOTO

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

An investigation funded by Montclair Public Schools has confirmed at least some of the many accusations in a self-described whistleblower’s letter — a 32-page missive alleging buildings and grounds staffers were mistreated for years, and that in the process health and safety hazards were allowed to fester in district schools.

But it remains unclear which of the many specific allegations by Montclair Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV were substantiated by former Wood-Ridge schools superintendent Nicholas Cipriano. He’d been hired in a June 22 contract to investigate the allegations, then in August to be Montclair’s new business administrator, succeeding Emidio D’Andrea — one of the officials he’d investigated

The investigation found a disrespectful work environment that fostered negativity and cultural insensitivity, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at a school board meeting Monday, Nov. 22.

There was also “a lack of urgency” to ensure work orders were completed in an appropriate time frame, Ponds said. 

“Each building will receive whatever it needs, regardless of the area of the town it is located,” Ponds said. “Our buildings and grounds team is tasked to assure equitable treatment of our buildings.” 

The official findings of Cipriano’s report remain confidential, Ponds said. He stressed he could only give his assessment of the findings. Montclair Local has made a public records request seeking the report itself, but it has been rejected.

“I want to thank our staff members for working hard and moving forward and being open and clear to our investigator about what they’ve experienced,” Ponds said at the meeting.

In the letter, titled “The Price of Leadership,” Kelley alleged four then-current or former district officials treated custodial staff abusively. He cited dozens of instances in which he said 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 alleged 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 described 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.

Ponds’ comments, though limited, were his first public remarks on the matter in months. He’d initially resisted even publicly discussing who’d been hired to handle the investigation, until Montclair Local reported in August it was the same person then slated to be hired as business administrator. And at that time, he said the investigation was complete, but that wouldn’t report on the findings until the end of September because he was focused on the reopening of schools. September and October came and went without a public update. 

Kelley, who presented an update on buildings and ground work in the district at the Nov. 22 meeting, hasn’t yet responded to an email sent to his district address the next morning. The district was on an abbreviated schedule, closed Thursday and Friday of that week, because of Thanksgiving.

In addition to the allegations he made about D’Andrea, Kelley made several claims about  former Buildings and Grounds Supervisor John Postas and former Buildings and Grounds Directors John Eschmann. He also made allegations regarding then-Buildings and Grounds Director Anthony Bispo.

It’s unclear what Bispo’s status with the district now is. Ponds has not responded to questions asking if Bispo is still employed by the district, but as of this week, the position remained marked “To be Announced” in a “Central Office Who’s Who” page on the district website. Bispo also did not appeal in the district’s online staff directory.

Eschmann worked at Madison public schools as director of facilities when the letter was written in April. Madison’s superintendent, Mark Schwarz, said officials in his community became aware of the allegations May 14, when Montclair Local first published a detailed report about Kelley’s allegations, additionally reflecting other accounts that addressed elements of it — such as from head custodians who say they experienced abusive behavior from managers, and a then-union head who said members were threatened with retaliation for complaints. Schwarz has not yet responded to a question sent to his district email Nov. 18 asking if the Madison investigation has been completed. Eschmann is still listed as director on the Madison schools website.

D’Andrea last attended a public Board of Education meeting May 17.

Kelley had said Postas was fired for “inappropriate staff conduct and language” after using racial slurs and bullying employees. Postas, who is a Franklin Borough councilman, acknowledged to Montclair Local earlier this year he faced such accusations but denied the behavior itself. He also denied a key aspect of Kelley’s claims — that his superiors gave him a list of employees to target with reprimands.

In interviews with Montclair Local, two head custodians — Nishuane School head custodian Kimberly Raison and Charles H. Bullock School head custodian Robert Edwards — had supported some of Kelley’s many allegations, and said they both consented to having incidents involving them described in his letter. Raison and Edwards have not yet responded to emails sent to their district addresses the morning of Nov. 23. 

Allegations and findings

As recently as the run-up to schools reopening for hybrid learning this spring, Kelley’s letter said, Bispo and D’Andrea ignored work needed to make school buildings safe, blaming custodial staff for slow repairs.

Kelley alleged Bispo let a fire panel at Bradford go unfixed for three weeks in March, leaving custodians constantly checking for fires. He said when he alerted Ponds, the superintendent immediately approved a work order to fix it. He also said Bispo didn’t attend to air conditioning repairs identified at the Developmental Learning Center for a month.

“I have reviewed the evidence, and the evidence confirms to me that our process and procedures were not followed with fidelity,” Ponds said at the recent board meeting. “This is changing and has to continue to change for us to meet the needs of our older buildings, to make sure we take care of our buildings.” 

The report included statements about the cultural responsiveness of the buildings and grounds department that “definitely stood out,” Ponds said. 

Kelley alleged that Eschmann, D’Andrea, Postas and Bispo all used racially motivated speech on multiple occasions. Kelley also alleged 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 this spring that he did face such allegations, but they were “ridiculous” and “unfounded.” 

“This report indicates that language and behavior used displayed a lack, I will say it again, a lack of cultural responsiveness and cultural sensitivity,” Ponds said. “This behavior will not be tolerated, and it’s unacceptable.”

The report’s findings confirm aspects of the work environment laid out in Kelley’s letter, Ponds said.

Kelley had also alleged that when he replaced Postas, Eschmann and D’Andrea provided him with a list of names of custodians to be sabotaged and told him that it would be less controversial for Kelley, a Black man, to be the one to reprimand other custodians of color. 

“It fostered negativity and was mostly challenging for our custodians, and at times disrespectful,” Ponds said. “Although I cannot discuss publicly any personnel matters, they will be addressed in changes made.”

There needs to be a change starting with the buildings and grounds office, but also across the entire district, Ponds said. 

“I am charging my senior staff to work collaboratively with all employees and employee associations to foster a respectful and emotionally safe working environment,” Ponds said.

Kelley’s letter is expansive, and included dozens of other specific claims — for instance, that Eschmann and D’Andrea lied to state health investigators in a late 2019 meeting, claiming they didn’t know about a spate of hazards at Montclair High School described in a Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health complaint by staff, despite his own email warning of a rodent infestation and another he says came from the-Superintendent Kendra Johnson about a litany of issues. Former Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson, also at the meeting with state health investigators, has told Montclair Local Eschmann and D’Andrea told investigators they didn’t know about the issues.

The letter also alleges that in late 2019, cutbacks by Eschmann and D’Andrea to cleaning staff left Nishuane School classrooms dirty enough to risk students’ health — matching an account Raison gave to Montclair Local. Robertson had confirmed getting complaints of uncleaned classrooms as well. And teacher Marissa May told Montclair Local says she believes dust from her classroom led to nodules on her vocal cords. Kelley’s letter and Raison both said at one point temperatures in Nishuane couldn’t be controlled, with kids in chilly classrooms wearing jackets, and the gym reaching 110 degrees because of a faulty boiler. In the letter, Kelley claimed Eschmann told him “I am not fixing the boiler. F— the boiler” and only did so after staffers started calling out sick.

At the Nov. 22 meeting school board member Eric Scherzer said he was glad to hear Ponds speak about the investigation findings. 

“It’s certainly refreshing to hear your comments and hear that many of the things that were alleged are being corrected because they should not be tolerated,” Scherzer said at the Monday board meeting. 

Scherzer, appointed to the board this year by Mayor Sean Spiller, is also chair of the board’s finance and facilities committee.

Nicholas Cipriano, the new school board secretary and business administrator for Montclair Schools, was previously superintendent of Wood-Ridge schools. He’s seen in a screenshot from a Wood-Ridge meeting held online.

Cipriano’s hiring

When Ponds first announced an outside entity would handle the investigation, he resisted calls from the Montclair Education Association to say who that would be — telling a member at a May meeting, “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.”

When Montclair Local reported on Aug. 16 that Cipriano was about to be named business administrator, and that he’d been the one contracted for the investigation, Ponds told the newspaper there was no conflict of interest “as he completed the investigation before he was recommended and approved by the board as our business administrator/board secretary.” It was the first public acknowledgement the investigation had been completed.

Contract dates and billing records received from the district after public records requests seem to leave little time for Cipriano to complete the investigation before being selected as business administrator.

Cipriano — who retired from his post as Wood-Ridge schools superintendent in February, effective June 30 — applied to be Montclair’s business administrator in mid-June. His cover letter was dated June 17, and the remainder of his application was dated June 19.

The board approved the contract for Cipriano to investigate the “whistleblower” complaint a few days after that, on June 21; he and school officials signed it June 22. 

Ponds hasn’t said when Cipriano formally concluded his investigation. But on Aug. 16,  the Montclair Board of Education approved a payment of $28,930 for Cipriano, billed on Aug. 9. At his contracted rate of $150 per hour, that works out to just under 193 hours — the equivalent of slightly more than 24 eight-hour work days.

If Cipriano began working eight-hour days the day his contract was signed (June 22), skipping only weekends and Independence Day, he would have concluded his investigation on July 26. That’s the same day he was approved by the Montclair board to be business administrator, at a salary of $190,000. It’s 10 days after the Essex County Superintendent of Schools office separately signed off on his hiring, according to a board agenda. 

It isn’t clear if that is indeed how his work days for the investigation would have broken down. But even if Cipriano had worked longer days, the timing is tight. For instance: He would have needed to work more than 11 hours every day other than weekends and Independence Day to be done with his investigation the same day the Essex County Superintendent of Schools office approved him.

Neither Ponds nor Cipriano responded to multiple emails sent in the late summer seeking clarification on the timeline and related matters. 

The district checked with legal counsel to ensure no rules or regulations were violated in the hiring of Cipriano as business administrator, Ponds told Montclair Local in August.

KEEP LOCAL JOURNALISM ALIVE: MontclairLocal.news is free, but it takes consistent financial support from a community that believes local journalism matters to make it and our weekly print paper possible. Your sustaining contribution of $10 per month (or more) makes you a member, and gets you our print edition. Visit MontclairLocal.news/donations for details and to become a member today.