DONAHUE EXCLUSIVE: The Ugly Truth Behind Her Dismissal — Part 2
The former longtime Noyes Elementary School teacher discusses the day she was given an ultimatum by Anne Wilson's lawyer, the overwhelming support of local parents and students, and why she decided to settle.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series examining the sudden end to Janice Donahue's teaching career. Superintendent Dr. Anne Wilson, the Sudbury Public Schools Committee, and Principal Annette Doyle have refused comment, citing legal issues. For part 1 of the series, click here.)
May 23, 2012, was supposed to be a day for Janice Donahue to give her side of the story to Supt. Anne Wilson regarding a student scuffle earlier that month in teacher Michael Gorgone's music room. Instead, it was Wilson's attorney, Elizabeth Valerio, letting Donahue know her career with Sudbury Public Schools was over: resign or be fired.
"There was no hearing. I was prepared to meet with the superintendent to explain exactly what had happened," Donahue said in an exclusive interview with Sudbury Patch. "I never met with Dr. Wilson. The (Sudbury Education Association) union president (Robert Mealey) and the union-appointed attorney (John Becker) had said I was 'to meet with the superintendent on May 23' to give my side of the story.'"
Donahue, Mealey and Becker all met in Mealey's music room one hour before what was expected to be the scheduled meeting with Wilson. Then, Becker showed Donahue an already-written resignation letter.
"I told the union-appointed attorney and the union president that I wasn't interested in that document because I had done nothing untoward," Donahue said. "We went to the Central Office to meet with the superintendent. I sat in her conference room with the union appointed attorney and union president waiting for the meeting (to start)."
Donahue said she was shocked to see the pre-written agreement explaining the terms for her resignation.
"I was stunned, and immediately became frightened," she said. "I learned that the superintendent and her attorney should have had the testimony of the children which described what had happened from the students' point of view. At the time I thought they would put me back into my classroom, now that they knew the truth."
But, according to Donahue, the truth fell on deaf ears. She asked her union representative and her union-appointed attorney what would happen if she didn't sign. Both answered the same: immediate termination.
"If that happened, I would not receive my pay, not get my retirement, and healthcare benefits would stop immediately," Donahue said. "Without my knowledge, the union-appointed attorney even waived my 21-day period to examine the document."
Donahue said Mealey appeared to agree with Becker, which made her grow more frightened. This meeting was nothing more than one to terminate the 25-year Sudbury Public Schools teacher.
And the superintendent was not even present.
Donahue says she turned to her union representatives and asked if this was retaliation by the principal, Annette Doyle. They both nodded their heads "yes."
"I didn’t trust her," said Cynthia Denessen, a 24-year SPS teacher who says she retired early in 2006 because of her distrust of Doyle. "It scared me, what happened to Janice. I know it could have happened to me. In my opinion she seems to have trouble with veteran teachers. The younger teachers don’t ask questions of her. She only listens to one side of an issue before making judgment. That is frightening. I think that’s why they didn’t hear (Janice's) side of it."
Donahue said the presentation of the termination letter was given to her with a "matter-of-fact attitude." She was to sign the agreement, along with resignation letter, or she would be fired and have all the benefits accrued in her 31-year teaching career affected.
Ultimately, what she believed to be the union president's conflict of interest (contract negotiations, possibly applying to have his out-of-town son enter SPS) forced her to seek private counsel.
Donahue hired an attorney at her own expense, David Fried, one with 35 years of experience in employment law, served on the bench in Kings County, N.Y., has been a prosecutor and a Notre Dame Law School professor.
"He advised me not to go any further," she said without naming her private attorney.
That attorney told Donahue it would have taken two to four years and a minimum of $50,000 of legal fees to go forward. If she was terminated, her pension would have been affected and she would have lost her benefits. She needed that retirement money for everyday expenses.
Part of the agreement prevents Donahue from discussing the financial settlement.
"My husband of 42 years and I have worked extremely hard to help our children succeed," Donahue said."My husband and I are not wealthy people. After working so hard for so many years, this experience was truly cruel and unimaginable for all of us."
Donahue said the atmosphere at Sudbury Public Schools has turned into "us vs. them" between the administration on one side, and the teachers and parents on the other, since the school committee voiced its full support of Wilson. This, despite a petition signed by more than 100 parents demanding the Wilson's ouster.
"Given the overall management issues in SPS, the system has been losing some excellent teachers," said Donahue, who added Denessen was one of them. "If these issues are not resolved, the system will continue to bleed some of the best of its staff. Many teachers walk in fear."
She went on to say Noyes does have excellent teachers, but that she worries about their future.
STRENGTH IN SUPPORT
For Donahue, if there was one positive that came out of that May 23 attack, it was the gathering of dozens of parents and students outside the SPS offices, backing up the beloved educator.
"I am extraordinarily proud of all of the very many families and students, past and present, who defended my and praised my teaching style," Donahue said. "These are extraordinary people who gave of their time to set right a terrible wrong. They are dedicated to keeping their children in a learning environment that is safe and enriching. They are wonderful people."
But the support of the parents apparently did not win over the school committee, superintendent or principal, as Donahue was forced to resign.
Donahue said during the 2011-12 school year, not one administrator ever visited her classroom. That's what puzzles her most. How could Doyle or Wilson have concerns about a student or her teaching style without ever entering the room?
"Having taught the young children of Sudbury for over 25 years, I have a unique perspective of what makes this such a thriving and loving community to raise children. I am speaking to the Patch because I hope that this will stop such administrative actions that hurt children, parents and staff. If my coming forward helps to expose the things that threaten the quality and atmosphere of learning and teaching at SPS, then some good will come out of this horrible experience."
STUDENTS' BEST INTERESTS
Since news of Donahue's dismissal broke, Wilson has made the following statements:
"As the superintendent of schools, I have and always will place the best interests of students first."
" ... there was no fight between students and no report of a fight between students was made to the administration."
" ... we take immediate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of students and we do a thorough investigation into the reported conduct."
" ... I will never lower our standards or put the best interests of students below any other interest in the system."
But a few tough questions remain:
- How does forcing the resignation of a longtime, admired and beloved teacher of a community put students' interests first?
- If there truly was no fight between students and nothing was reported to the administration, why the investigation?
- How does ignoring student testimony that may favor Donahue constitute a thorough investigation?
Sudbury Public Schools has taken a beating the past few months over its handling of the Janice Donahue situation. Parents have demanded answers; the response, for the most part: "school administrators are required to protect the confidentiality of personnel matters and cannot, by law, disclose these matters or any circumstances surrounding them."