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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, This, despite

"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."

siobhan hullinger August 29, 2012 at 08:39 PM
@parent - the gag order was not imposed by a judge, it was self imposed by the committee. The committee put Mrs D onahue under a gag order as part of the settlement negotiation. The super and the committee are free to discuss this openly as long as Mrs J's rights are not violated. Mrs J can allow the committee to speak freely, however, she was not allowed to speak.
Eileen McLaughlin September 02, 2012 at 10:34 PM
As an outsider looking in, ( with grandchildren in the system) , I hope you don't mind a few comments on the matter. YES this is a classic employment shakedown and if you are truly concerned, the only recourse you have is to begin replacing those members of the School Committee who have not been open and responsive to the issue. Mrs. D is gone and hopefully those of you who have known her can give her some expression of thanks for her long service in the system. All of you concerned about the manner in which this was carried out, must do more than expressing outrage in the Patch, or it will happen again. There must be good candidates in Sudbury and people with experience in electing those candidates who have the energy and the WILL to begin the process of changing the school committee. Don't get sidetracked by many of the secondary issues I have been reading in your commentary...... get a good candidate, a knowledgeable election committee, focus on your main issues and GET GOING.! Elections will come sooner than you think
Dr.Rosen-rosen September 07, 2012 at 01:27 PM
It's all ball-bearings these days...
Allan. Donof September 14, 2012 at 07:15 AM
I have waited for several weeks before chiming in on this horrible miscarriage of justice and inability of a principal and school board to deal with a long - term employee in an atmosphere good faith and fair treatment. The principal has made statements wrapped in innuendo and not backed by the facts uncovered by the press and the School Board. Yet, Ms Donahue was fired without just cause. The union lawyers and the school board lawyers and the Board ignored the federal law surrounding severance payments requiring a release. Ms. Donahue was told she would not have the federally mandated time period to examine, reflect, analyze, and determine if the School Board's lynching was legal or in her best interest. Earlier, I was so outraged over this sleazy affair that I had written several possible responses but decided to wait, to reflect, to be thoughtful before commenting. I am glad I did because I was prepare to use language unsuitable for a community newspaper. I will just mention that I believe the administration and principal are the most inept public employees I have ever encountered. If the had a shred of decency they shoul resign and help the school community heal in a quick and lasting manner. Their collective shortcomings have injured others unnecessarily.
Liz September 16, 2012 at 12:55 PM
I almost missed this account since I lost track of this issue over the past couple of weeks. Which is what worries me--that people will wear out over this and Doyle and Wilson will never be held accountable. I went to one School Committee meeting and was so offended and infuriated that it's hard for me to go back. It's also hard to imagine getting anywhere through this route. So, is the bottom line that we can't do anything about Doyle and Wilson as long as the School Committee supports them? Do we really have to wait to vote in new members of the School Committee?

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