Madison schools investigating after Montclair Local report on ‘whistleblower’ letter
By TALIA WIENER
Madison Public Schools are now also investigating the allegations against former Montclair school official John Eschmann in a self-described whistleblower’s letter, Madison Superintendent Mark Schwarz said.
“The district became aware of this news story [Wednesday], May 12, 2021, and is actively investigating these allegations,” Schwarz told Montclair Local by email. That’s the day MontclairLocal.news published a detailed account of a 32-page letter written by Montclair Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Robert H. Kelley IV, reflecting several interviews with other district employees positioned to know about some of the dozens of incidents it describes. Kelley’s letter names Eschmann as one of four current or former Montclair district officials he claims treated custodial staff abusively, and neglected school buildings to the point the safety of students and staff was at risk.
Eschmann served as director of buildings and grounds for the Montclair school district for three years. He became director of facilities for Madison Public Schools in August 2020, Schwarz said. Kelley’s letter only alleges incidents in Montclair, not 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, but received no reply.
Montclair Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local in April the Montclair district was aware of Kelley’s letter and would investigate. He told the public at a May 5 school board meeting an outside entity will handle the investigation, but hasn’t said who.
Kelley and two head custodians reached by Montclair Local also allege abusive or neglectful behavior by two current employees: Buildings and Grounds Director Anthony Bispo and district Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea.
Montclair Education Association President Petal Robertson said earlier this week the Montclair union had asked district officials why the two hadn’t been placed on leave during an investigation, and hasn’t received a response. Ponds would not confirm to Montclair Local whether any employees were placed on leave, but D’Andrea was at the May 5 school board meeting, serving in his role as business administrator and board secretary. 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.
Robertson, who will leave her MEA post this summer to become the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association, said employees being investigated for misconduct were put on leave “in every instance I’ve ever seen until now.”
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, in a statement sent to Montclair Local, said he found the allegations in Kelley's letter "alarming" and called for both D’Andrea and Bispo to be put on leave.
"For so many reasons, there is an incredible amount of work to do in this town to rebuild trust between the school district and the community," he wrote. "The fate of this township is bound to the leadership and performance of our school district and the results that those generate for your children. Regardless of the outcome of this investigation, there are structural and legacy issues with this district that can only be overcome with bold leadership and change that is urgently needed."
Kelley’s letter is expansive, and Montclair Local’s May 12 report only discusses some of its dozens of claims. Among those specifically concerning Eschmann:
• The letter 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.
• The letter alleges 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 MEA also filed an unhealthy workplace complaint about Postas’ behavior to staff, but never heard back from the district. Ponds told Montclair Local Postas’ last day with 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.
• Kelley's letter alleges 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. 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. He cites his own email warning of a rodent infestation, and another he says came from then-Superintendent Kendra Johnson about a litany of issues; Montclair Local has filed a public records request seeking that email. Robertson, also at the meeting with state health investigators, says Eschmann and D’Andrea said they didn’t know about the issues, but couldn’t speak to Kelley’s claim citations were downgraded as a result. The state Department of Health said the PEOSH case remains open and declined comment.
• Raison and Kelley say that in late 2019, cutbacks by Eschmann and D’Andrea to cleaning staff left Nishuane classrooms dirty enough to risk students’ health. Robertson confirms getting complaints of uncleaned classrooms as well. 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 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 claims Eschmann told him “I am not fixing the boiler. F— the boiler” and only did so after staffers started calling out sick.
• Kelley claims 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.”