Asked who’s probing Montclair whistleblower letter, Ponds pleads for patience
By TALIA WIENER
Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds Monday night pleaded for patience, as a self-described whistleblower's dozens of allegations against current and former school officials are investigated.
Ponds has said an outside entity will investigate the matter, after a 32-page letter by Montclair Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV alleged four current or former district officials treated custodial staff abusively, and neglected school buildings to the point the safety of students and staff were at risk.
One of those officials — former Montclair buildings and grounds director John Eschmann — now works at Madison public schools as director of facilities. Madison's superintendent, Mark Schwarz, said officials in his community became aware of the allegations the day of Montclair Local's report and were investigating as well. Kelley’s letter only alleges incidents in Montclair, not Madison.
When Montclair Education Association Secretary Cathy Kondreck pressed Ponds at a Monday school board meeting for an update — also asking who will be conducting the investigation — the Montclair superintendent declined to provide specifics. He said that’s “not to hide anyone’s name or anything, but to make sure people feel safe doing the investigation.”
“So I ask our public, let us do our work,” Ponds said. “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.”
He said the district administration takes the complaint seriously and "we’re doing everything we can to move it forward."
Kelley and two head custodians reached by Montclair Local also allege abusive and neglectful behavior by two current employees: Buildings and Grounds Director Anthony Bispo and district Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea. Ponds has declined to say whether they’ve been put on leave.
D’Andrea was at a May 5 school board meeting where Ponds publicly acknowledged the letter and investigation, but not at the May 17 meeting. Nishuane School head custodian Kimberly Raison told Montclair Local she last saw D’Andrea at her school May 10 as well; she said she hasn’t seen or heard from Bispo in weeks.
In Madison, Schwarz did not address whether Eschmann had been placed on leave during Madison’s investigation, saying the district does not comment on personnel matters. His Madison district email address has been disabled, and his office phone voicemail redirects to the district’s technology coordinator. Montclair Local had previously emailed Eschmann at his Madison address, which appeared to be working, but received no reply.
Kelley’s letter is expansive, and Montclair Local’s May 12 report only discusses some of its dozens of claims. Among them:
- It alleges Eschmann and then-Buildings and Grounds Supervisor John Postas tried to edge Raison out of her job in 2019. He says they wanted Kelley, as a line custodian at Nishuane, to make complaints against her — using his own status as a Black man from Montclair as a shield against accusations of racism. Raison is the district’s only Black, female custodian, she and Kelley’s letter said. Raison told Montclair Local she felt she’d been treated unfairly at the time, and has since filed a union grievance against Eschmann. Postas told Montclair Local he did indeed want Raison out of a job, but says it’s because she couldn’t handle the work.
- Raison and Kelley say that in late 2019, Eschmann and D’Andrea cut back cleaning staff at Nishuane classrooms, leaving them dirty enough to risk students’ health. MEA President Petal Robertson confirms getting complaints of uncleaned classrooms as well. Teacher Marissa May says she believes dust from her classroom led to nodules on her vocal cords. Kelley’s letter and Raison both say 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.
- Kelley says Eschmann and D’Andrea gave Postas a list of employees to reprimand, seeking retribution against those they saw as disloyal — then later gave Kelley the same list after Postas was fired amid claims of racist and bullying behavior. Postas told Montclair Local he never received any such list, but agreed with his supervisors that some employees weren’t doing their jobs and needed to be held accountable. He acknowledges being accused of inappropriate behavior, but denies the behavior itself. Robertson said the union also filed an unhealthy workplace complaint about Postas’ behavior to staff, but never heard back from the district.
- Kelley says 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 an email from himself about a rodent infestation and another he says came from then-Superintendent Kendra Johnson about a litany of issues. Robertson, also at the meeting with state health investigators, says Eschmann and D’Andrea said they didn’t know about the issues. The state Department of Health said the PEOSH case remains open and declined comment.
- Kelley says Eschmann made racist comments and jokes about Hispanic people all being in the country illegally, and says the manager of a night cleaning company, ACB Cleaning was “gravely offended.” But ACB’s manager, Julio Deza, told Montclair Local he does not remember talking to Kelley about any jokes of Eschmann’s, and said comments made by Eschmann may have been misconstrued — “how Eschmann and others are accused for discrimination, I don’t see it.” Deza said he thinks some people claim discrimination when they’re only being held accountable for “laziness.”
- 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. Raison described an incident in which she says Bispo didn’t authorize work on a classroom closet with asbestos for more than a week, until Kelley stepped in and called a contractor. Kelley alleges Bispo let a fire panel at Bradford Elementary School go unfixed for three weeks in March, leaving custodians constantly checking for fires, until Ponds approved a work order to fix it himself.
Kelley, Eschmann, D’Andrea and Bispo have not responded to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment.