Ex-principal says she was bullied into quitting

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Nearly five months after leaving the Spuyten Duyvil School (P.S. 24) amid controversies, former Principal Donna Connelly is breaking her silence.

She abruptly announced that she was retiring on Oct. 30, in the middle of the first semester of her seventh year with the school. The move came after what she described as a “perfect storm” of negative events — the now-infamous removal of several teachers’ desks, an incident derided in The New York Post, followed by revelations that the school had lost the lease for its classroom annex at the Whitehall co-op building on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

“The only way I can say it is I felt like I was being bullied. There was no doubt that I felt bullied,” she said of the build-up to her resignation. “I felt threatened and bullied by what happened.”

Ms. Connelly said in a Monday interview that she retired because she felt she would have been pressured to leave if she tried to stay.

“The issue over the lease was something where I was definitely hung out to dry. Everyone stepped away from the plate, and there I was standing,” she said. “The blame was directed at the instructional leader of the school, and I had nothing to do with the lease.”

For years, P.S. 24 had leased an annex — used for fifth-grade classrooms — in the Whitehall, but the Department of Education (DOE) let the lease expire on June 30 in spite of efforts by the Whitehall board to continue the contract.

This week, Ms. Connelly said she had not known about the pending expiration of the lease until a Whitehall representative told her in September.

Parents were furious to learn the news at an Oct. 21 parents’ association meeting. Many voiced anger at DOE officials and local politicians. While Ms. Connelly did not speak at the meeting, at one point, Assistant Principal Manny Verdi told Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, “You never miss a photo op, but you did not come into our office to discuss this matter.”

Ms. Connelly said she was disappointed that the district superintendent, Melodie Mashel, did not stand up for her during the meeting and explain that the principal is not responsible for negotiating leases.

“When I came back in after the meeting, I had a conversation with the superintendent, and she said to me very angrily, ‘This is not over yet. This is not over,’” Ms. Connelly recalled. “I felt threatened, I felt bullied by the people above me, I felt like I needed to march to whatever orders people were going to be giving me.”

Ms. Mashel did not respond to requests for comment.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Dinowitz said he told Ms. Connelly the lease was in danger last March, three months before it expired. He said he understands the principal does not handle leases, but that Ms. Connelly should have put pressure on the DOE to re-sign the deal.

“They kept parents in the dark, they sat on their hands and they let disaster happen,” he said of Ms. Connelly and Mr. Verdi.

Uproar over desks

The news about the lease came on the heels of another story that garnered negative attention for Ms. Connelly. On Oct. 15, someone spotted a pile of desks and filing cabinets across the street from P.S. 24. A teacher from the school said Ms. Connelly was forcing teachers to get rid of their desks and throwing them away.

The New York Post picked up the story, prompting a radio personality at Power 105.1 FM to call Ms. Connelly the “donkey of the day” in an on-air segment.

Ms. Connelly denied that the desk removal was a surprise move and alleged that the backlash came from several longtime teachers who resented other changes she had instituted.

Part of her plan at the school, she said, was to rearrange classrooms to better facilitate instruction for students. That included replacing the teachers’ old desks and filing systems with new furniture that left more room for students in the classroom. The bright blue workstations were smaller than the old desks and featured new filing systems and a “conference area” for teachers to work with students.

“There were seven people that [still] had desks. Everyone else had embraced what I had been working on since day one,” she explained. “And I said, okay guys, let’s try the workstation.”

Ms. Connelly admitted that it was a mistake to put the desks on the street as though they were being thrown away, but said that was never her intention.

“They should never have been on the street,” she said. “We were storing them for offices that they have in the school, and somebody took a photo of it. And that’s the story of the desk-dumping Donna.”

Out-of-zone students

While tensions reached a breaking point in the fall, Ms. Connelly claimed that she felt pressure from people long before that. She said early into her tenure, Mr. Dinowitz visited the school to warn her that the school was getting overcrowded because of a large population of out-of-zone students.

The assemblyman has accused Ms. Connelly and Mr. Verdi of enrolling too many out-of-zone students in previous interviews. But she denied those claims.

“If they provide us with the documentation necessary, we don’t investigate further,” she said. “We can’t say, oh no, we don’t think you belong here.”

Ms. Connelly claimed that since she left, Ms. Mashel has been pressuring Assistant Principal Manny Verdi to leave P.S. 24. Ms. Connelly has worked with Mr. Verdi at different schools for many years, and early in her tenure at P.S. 24, Ms. Connelly faced backlash for allegedly not filling the assistant principal position so Mr. Verdi could earn the necessary credentials for the job.

Mr. Verdi, Ms. Connelly said, would have liked to be considered for the principal position at P.S. 24, but Ms. Mashel has told him he is not welcome to apply.

The Press has learned Mr. Verdi has retained a lawyer, Ezra Glaser, in case he decides to seek court intervention in the hiring process for the next principal. Mr. Verdi declined to be interviewed.

Since leaving P.S. 24, Ms. Connelly, a licensed psychologist, has reopened her private practice. Before taking the principal job in 2009, she had heard stories of other principals being forced out of the school.

“At this point, I feel like my reputation is damaged by the events that happened and by the press that’s out there. If you look up my name, Donna Connelly, what you find is basically a bad educator. Somebody who did the wrong thing to teachers or who is not union-friendly, which is not the case at all,” she said.

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