Every seat was taken and people spilled into the hallway as the Sudbury Public Schools Committee held another tense meeting following the dismissal last month of a well-known teacher at .
For the second week in a row, the Committee faced intense scrutiny from parents over what they say was a breakdown in communication surrounding an abrupt change in teachers for a first-grade class weeks before the end of the school year.
Janice Donahue, 67, left the school in early May, following an incident in which another teacher complained about the manner in which she broke up a fight between two young boys who wanted the same seat in a music class. Donahue has been defended at length by a number of parents and fellow teachers, who referred to themselves as "unabashed Mrs. J. supporters" and said that is it simply not possible that Donahue, who they said has an outstanding reputation, physically assaulted a student.
Parents complained that Superintendent Dr. Anne Wilson and Noyes Principal Annette Doyle were late in informing them about the situation. "I am sorry for raising my voice, but this is my child we are talking about," said one parent, who spoke emotionally about not finding out that Donahue's employment had been terminated and that her son was being taught by substitutes until several days later.
"This Committee is under no obligation to do anything other than hear your comments at this time," Committee Chair Richard Robison said, as he repeatedly reminded the crowd about state laws that forbid Committee members from speaking in public about personnel matters. Such laws include criminal penalties for those who violate them, he noted.
"We understand your frustration, concern and even your anger," Wilson said, reading from a prepared statement. She cited examples of ongoing communications with Room 15 parents and vowed that the students would receive "a smooth and successful transition into second grade."
Fellow teachers expressed concern that the Donahue case leaves them uncertain as to how they can handle fights and disagreements among young children, which they said occur on a regular basis throughout the course of a normal week at school.
"In 28 years, I have never seen the system in such crisis, and it breaks my heart," said Mary Mahoney, an eighth-grade teacher.
"This whole situation could have just as easily happened to me," said Cynthia Denessen, a retired teacher from Noyes and . "All teachers should be able to feel safe at school, and feel that their judgment as Sudbury teachers will be respected."
Denessen referred to Donahue as "a model teacher" and "a teacher of teachers" and said her sudden dismissal will cause fear and mistrust among other teachers who are simply trying to do their jobs.
The Committee drew ire from the crowd when it voted to go into Executive Session to discuss collective bargaining and litigation issues. By state law, school committees are allowed to close Executive Sessions to the public and the media to discuss those issues. A motion from Bob Armour, who joined the Committee in May, to extend the public forum by another 15 minutes was voted down. His motion was supported only by Lucie St. George, the other new School Committee member. She had no comment but raised her hand to vote with Armour.
"Shame on you, Lisa," called out one member of the crowd to Vice Chair Lisa Gutch, after she joined the rest of the Committee in refusing Armour's motion to extend the public forum.
Additional public comment was permitted following the Executive Session, but parents charged that Committee members knew they had babysitters waiting at home and were hoping that as many people as possible would leave during the recess.
"This has gone from just an incident into a mess," said one parent as the public forum concluded.
Last week Wilson emailed a memo to the Noyes community, explaining staff protocol in relation to behaviorial issues within the school system, confidentiality on personnel issues and steps that have been taken to assist students and families of Room 15 at Noyes.
To read the memo, click on the pdf.