On December 20th, 2011, an anonymous email publicly released a document – a short Memo, really – comprising two paragraphs of statements attributed to Lisa Maher, Principal of the Woodglen Elementary School. The first paragraph concerned a visit from Board of Education trustee Donna Ehrenberg three weeks prior to the Board’s decision of Principal Maher’s tenure on February 15, 2011. It said that Mrs. Ehrenberg approached the Principal and asked about her handling of a particular teacher “that teachers in the school are afraid of”.
The second paragraph concerned a phone call shortly after February 15th from then President of the Board Phil DeGaetano, who congratulated the Principal on receiving tenure and more broadly suggested that Mrs. Maher should “do her job”. The email – in language far more extensive than the actual Memo – accuses DeGaetano and Ehrenberg of implying that the principal’s tenure hinged upon her handling of that teacher (whose name is prominent in the Report).
The day before, on December 19th, the Board voted in Executive Session to commission an investigation on the Memo. The report of this investigation was publicly released after the BoE meeting on March 1, 2012.
The publicly stated goals were to answer three main questions:
- Who obtained and released the Memo in December?
- Why was the matter not addressed at the time?
- Was the Memo accurate?
It turns out there were privately stated goals as well. The Board further directed the investigation to address “all aspects of the creation and custody of the Memo” due to concerns raised by Carol Pilla, President of the Clarkstown Administration Association (CAA) on December 13th and Greg Montague, President of the Clarkstown Teachers Association (CTA) on December 16th. In the excerpts of the letters on Page 4 of the Report, Mr. Montague expresses concern that the Memo "’contains information about a CTA member and her employment with the district,’ which is confidential…” Ms. Pilla agreed that the Memo contained “confidential personnel related information”. What’s interesting about Ms. Pilla’s letter is that it “claimed to have been informed” that the Memo had been “distributed to the public/newspapers”.
The New City Patch first republished the Memo on December 20st, a week before Ms. Pilla’s letter (but not the 21st, as noted in the Report on Page 6). The Report does not explain how Ms. Pilla and the CAA obtained this prescient information.
The following limitations on the investigation are described by the Report:
- The one-page Resolution adopted by the Board in public.
- The separate three-page Resolution adopted in Executive Session “which outlined the nature, extent and scope of the investigation”.
- The price caps and time constraints imposed by the Board.
Question One: Who Released the Memo?
The first main question – who obtained and released the Memo – is actually two parts. For Clarkstown residents, the first part is, who obtained and released the email that the Patch reported on December 20th? The Report concludes: who knows? The Memo was sent to 11 people on December 8th (Page 20). Ms. Pilla was not among those, yet she apparently received all memos on December 9th (Page 21), so the Memo was already circulating between the 8th and the 19th. Were people simply sharing their paper copies, or was the Memo scanned and distributed electronically? The Report does not address this.
The second part, asked by the Board, is: who mailed a hard copy of the Memo to these 11 people on December 8th? Again, the Report cannot answer this question.
To explain their inability to answer, the Report reaches an unsupported conclusion that “the Superintendent…was the last person to have custody of the Memo”. This is based on a recollection of Dr. Deborah Leh that Dr. Margaret Keller-Cogan retained a printed copy of the Memo, though Dr. Keller-Cogan believes that she gave back the Memo (Page 15).
It was a printed copy that Dr. Leh created from a stored electronic copy of the Memo. The potentially easy distribution of an electronic file – compared to Dr. Keller-Cogan’s printed hard copy - is not addressed by the Report. Who had access to the electronic file is also not fully addressed, but Dr. Leh’s electronic copy was shared with at least Dr. O’Connell, Mr. Sobel (Page 16) and Principal Maher (Page 17). Further, the actual hard copy was found in Dr. O’Connell’s files and obtained by Mr. Sobel. Notably, the Report doesn’t explain if the Memo found in Dr. O’Connell’s office was that given to Dr. Keller-Cogan or another printed copy. Regardless, one cannot reasonably argue that she was the last person to hold custody the Memo, so this conclusion is flat-out wrong.
Question Two: Why Wasn’t This Investigated Early 2011?
Perhaps in part to explain their inability to answer this first main question, the Report criticizes the administration’s "internal investigation" and records retention practices. This criticism appears to have some validity on the latter, though it is curious that administration actions are viewed within the context of the 4-3 split among the Board (and even an implied Grecian conspiracy), yet the actions of Board members are presented in almost bizarrely neutral light.
This is important, since on the second question the Report attempts to explain the Board’s directive to examine “all aspects of the creation and custody of the Memo”. It is notable that, until its summation and conclusion, the Report never describes the actions taken by the Administration at the time as an “investigation”…probably because it wasn’t a formal internal investigation.
The Memo was a result of “a talk with Principal Maher…after an unrelated meeting…to determine whether there was anything to be substantiated.” That is the entirety of the Report’s description of the creation of the Memo, and it is, by any definition, an informal inquiry that led to no further action such as, say, an internal investigation.
Yet, in its conclusion, the Report blames the administration for failing to “conclude an internal investigation”, and issues this inexplicable conclusion: “The failure by the Administration to conclude an internal investigation in a written report that resolved questions of fact and provided proper conclusions left evidence adduced or accumulated such as the original Memo subject to potential abuse and misuse.” Again, there was no internal investigation. There is no “adduced or accumulated” evidence presented by the Report apart from the Memo itself.
The Report does not seem to recognize that the Superintendent is the authority to initiate such inquires and, if substantiation is found, prepare a report for the Board and conduct a formal internal investigation. To explain why the matter was not addressed at the time – that is, why the inquiry did not lead to a report and an actual internal investigation – then certainly the Board’s consistent failure to follow procedure or demonstrate the slightest inclination towards self-enforcement, as well as the Board majority’s obvious antagonism against Dr. Keller-Cogan, provides this context. Recall that the Board President at the time was Mr. DeGaetano, a subject of the inquiry. If pursued, such a report would not have resulted in any further action. It would have been deliberated in Executive Session (personnel matters, you know) and would have died there, unknown to the public. With no chance of enforcement, it is obvious why a report from the Superintendent would not be prepared and presented to the Board.
For additional context, District Counsel has long interpreted District Policy as more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual Rules, a position with which we disagree strongly and believe to be largely responsible for the long-time discord in the CCSD. It is unlikely that District Counsel would have recommended any action. Under such conditions, dropping the matter at the inquiry stage seems reasonable.
Question Three: Is the Memo Accurate?
On the 3rd question, the Report concludes that Principal Maher’s statements in the memo are accurate. Principal Maher affirmed the accuracy of her statements in her testimony (Page 11). Principal Maher and Mr. DeGaetano both affirmed the accuracy of her statements in their testimony (Page 11).
Curiously, there is no testimony from Mrs. Ehrenberg about…well, anything. This seems an incredible omission given that, in reading the Memo, the violations of confidentiality expressed by Mr. Montague and Ms. Pilla can only regard the paragraph describing Mrs. Ehrenberg’s explicit references.
The Report spent wa-a-a-ay too much time – fully one-quarter of the Report – painfully going into minute detail on the personnel issues that Mrs. Ehrenberg felt justified her making a direct inquiry. One would think that the President of the CTA would be outraged that one teacher was singled out for such extensive scrutiny, much less public exposure. There is no testimony from the allegedly frightened teachers to support Mrs. Ehrenbeg's stated concerns. Principal Maher does mentioned feeling "threatened" by this teacher, but exactly how is never pursued or explained.
In any event, let us be clear. It is absolutely NOT permissible for a BoE member to discuss personnel issues with staff or to become involved with personnel issues except as presented by the Superintendent.
The Report attempts to obfuscate Mrs. Ehrenberg’s actions by emphasizing that Mr. Malgieri also visited Woodglen, and that Principal Maher claimed she also complained to Dr. Leh about those visits. Her complaints, however, are not specified in any way. Nowhere is it even implied that Mr. Malgieri engaged staff on personnel matters. Similarly, the visits and statements attributed to and confirmed by Mr. DeGaetano can only be viewed, as the Report does, as “implicit”. They are not, in themselves, evidence of misconduct. Whatever implications one may impart to either man reflects one’s own biases and little more. At least the Report got that right.
One cannot overlook – though the Report tries very hard to do so – that Mrs. Ehrenberg did explicitly conduct an entirely inappropriate conversation with a school administrator about a specific teacher. Mrs. Ehrenberg’s actions are a direct violation of Board By-Law #9375 adopted in 1986, as well as sections of other By-Laws and District Policies. These are actual Rules, not guidelines.
This misconduct is clearly out in public, and it cannot be put back behind the shroud of Executive Session. Mrs. Ehrenberg's actions - and the resultant expense, time, and distraction - cannot be representative of the duties of a CCSD Board trustee. Operating under the high ethical standards demanded by Board By-Laws and District Policies, Mrs. Ehrenberg should resign.