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Former NPS ‘chief’ sues district, Estrella, alleges breach of contract

Then-Norwalk Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Donalda Chumney, center, at the May 18 Board of Education Curriculum & Instruction Committee meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Donalda Chumney has sued Norwalk Public Schools, alleging breach of contract and bad faith in her brief tenure here as NPS Chief Academic Officer.

Chumney was enthusiastically recruited by Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella in 2020 only to have her position eliminated five months after taking the role, despite not being told of any performance deficiencies, according to the complaint. Further, Estrella pressured the single mother to uproot herself and her child and move to Norwalk, linking Chumney’s hiring to a desire to oust Yvette Goorevitch as Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services. Chumney invested money in Connecticut licenses and expected to stay long enough to become vested in a pension plan.

Estrella is also being sued.

Chumney, labeled “damaged goods,” was forced to become a school principal in Virginia after departing NPS, according to the complaint. She’s taken a pay cut and uprooted her child again.

The complaint accuses Estrella of being on a vendetta in which Chumney was simply “collateral damage in a sham ‘reorganization’ of the school district, designed to accomplish {Estrella’s} true goal of removing” Goorevitch and others, the complaint alleges.

“Ms. Chumney was a probationary employee whose position was eliminated, and many of the statements in her complaint are inaccurate,” said Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams.

The complaint was filed Nov. 16 in federal court. NPS and Estrella are accused of:

  1. Breach of contract
  2. Fraudulent misrepresentation/inducement
  3. Breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing
  4. Deprivation of a protected property interest in the pursuit of (Chumney’s) occupation without due process of law

 

An attorney representing Estrella, Ryan Driscoll, filed a reply denying the complaint’s statements and “insinuations,” on Dec. 16.

The parties seek a settlement conference.

Chumney’s attorneys reached out to the school district “to try to resolve the claim that they manufactured,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr said Thursday. “Pursuant to the Federal procedural Rules the parties are mandated to hold among themselves a Rule 26(f) Planning Meeting in which they are to decide a great number ot things such as whether or not jurisdiction is contested, a timetable for discovery, etc. As part of this the parties are asked if they wish to discuss the case with a Magistrate.”

He said both sides agreed on that and other procedural matters, and the plaintiffs will file the required report.

“We firmly believe that no contract was breached and we believe the Magistrate may help the Plaintiff see that as well,” Spahr said.

Chumney’s attorney, Jill Saluck, did not reply to a Thursday email from NancyOnNorwalk.

“The request for a settlement conference is standard procedure to avoid litigation costs where possible, and that request does not reflect any district concerns over the merits of Ms. Chumney’s claims,” Wilcox Williams said. “Norwalk Public Schools disputes those claims, and we are prepared to seek dismissal of this complaint when appropriate in accordance with court procedures.”

 

 

Chumney says she was recruited

Estrella began work as Norwalk Superintendent in July 2020, after seven years as superintendent for Community School District Four in East Harlem, part of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).

Chumney worked for NYCDOE for 16 years, finishing that run in December 2020 after two years as Superintendent of Community School District 2 in Manhattan, her complaint states.

She maintained a professional relationship with Estrella.

Chumney states that Estrella texted her on July 11, 2020, asking if she would be interested in becoming NPS Chief Academic Officer. Three days later, they talked on the phone and Estrella explained why she thought Chumney would be good for the soon-to-be-vacant role.

Estrella told Chumney that she was dissatisfied with Goorevitch, and “We have history from when my kids were going through the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process, and I want her out.”

Estrella lives in Westchester County, where Goorevitch had served as longtime Director of Special and Alternative Education for the City of New Rochelle before coming to NPS in 2017.

The new NPS Superintendent told Chumney she planned to combine the Curriculum and Instruction Department and Specialized Learning Departments, eliminating Goorevitch’s position, according to the complaint. Chumney was “compelled” by the idea of merging the departments. Given Estrella’s vision and interest, Chumney pursued school district leader licensure in Connecticut.

The pair continued to talk about Estrella’s vision and Estrella said more about her frustrations with Goorevitch from her perspective as a New Rochelle parent, according to the complaint. On July 31, 2020, Estrella texted to say Brenda Myers was resigning her post as Chief Academic Officer and urged Chumney to complete her licensing process. Weeks later, Estrella said she’d told Myers “it wasn’t necessary” to work until her planned end date. The district had hired Sandra Kase to serve as interim Chief Academic Officer.

Then-Norwalk Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Donalda Chumney, center, at the Jan. 26 Board of Education Curriculum & Instruction Committee meeting.

“In response to Estrella’s numerous solicitations and the information Estrella had provided regarding the specific nature and duties of the Chief Academic Officer role, {Chumney} decided to formally apply for the position,” the complaint states.

During a Sept. 25, 2020, interview with a Board of Education hiring committee, members “asked her the very same questions that Estrella had texted her the evening before, verbatim with no amendments,” the complaint states. Minutes after it ended, Estrella called and told Chumney that it would be “essential” for her to relocate to Norwalk and it would be “critical to the Board.”

Offered the job, Chumney told Kase that she’d have to break the lease on her Brooklyn apartment and buy driving lessons for her child’s babysitter so the babysitter could drive back and forth between Queens and Norwalk, according to the complaint. She spoke of buying a car and registering her child in a preschool here. Kase encouraged her to continue.

But the first version of an employment contract had no salary information with it and offered two end dates, one on June 30, 2021, and the other on June 30, 2023, the complaint states. Estrella called it a “draft” and a subsequent contract specified a $204,000 a year salary with a 403(b) contribution of $5,000, adding up to about $22,500 more than Chumney made as Community Superintendent. But it only offered employment for a year.

Chumney said she was taking a risk, was “reluctant to leave a job where she had employment protections in place and an established record of success,” and needed a longer-term commitment, the complaint states. She proposed lengthening it to end on June 30, 2023.

In late October, Estrella again denigrated Goorevitch, according to the complaint. Chumney got the 2.5-year contract she’d been seeking and accepted the job, expecting to “take on supervision and leadership of the Department of Specialized Learning, as Estrella had explicitly told her.”

 

Chumney alleges rude surprise

She became Chief Academic Officer on Dec. 1, 2020, and learned in a cabinet meeting that day that Estrella was working on a new strategic operating plan based upon reports prepared by the Connecticut Center for School Change, according to the complaint. Chumney requested the reports and learned that Estrella had been planning a leadership reorganization while recruiting her.

“{N}either Estrella nor any other NPS employee or Board member had ever indicated to Plaintiff that a larger reorganization of cabinet-level roles was already underway,” the complaint states. While the job posting said the CAO would be “the District’s leader in curriculum, instruction, and professional development,” the Connecticut Center for School Change report said “the primary functions associated with this role are essential to each school district used for data comparison.”

Chumney and Estrella met in January “to discuss various aspects of her role” and the planned merger of departments, and Chumney told Estrella that she and Goorevitch had been working well together in a “highly productive and collaborative” relationship, suggesting that the departments not be combined, given the pandemic and multiple outstanding lawsuits that predated Goorevitch.

Estrella is reported to have called the merger “non-negotiable” and restated her desire to have Goorevitch “out.” Wilcox Williams subsequently announced Goorevitch’s retirement and the planned merger.

While Chumney plunged headlong into the work of merging the departments, in March she suggested to Estrella that Goorevitch stay on as a consultant, given the ongoing litigation and need to supervise specialized personnel, according to the complaint. Estrella replied, “I don’t want her back here.”

On April 9, Estrella told Chumney the CAO position was being eliminated and “she would need to reapply for a new position that had not yet been established or posted,” the complaint states, alleging that an Assistant Superintendent position was being created with the same duties Chumney had been hired to do. Chumney was expected to apply for a lower paying non-cabinet role.

“In short, Estrella was attempting to revoke the title, salary increase, and opportunity to continue leading impactful work, which she had used to lure Plaintiff from her previous position,” the complaint states. “…In the four months and thirteen days that Plaintiff had served as Chief Academic Officer at Norwalk Public Schools, she had fulfilled all functions of her role and had eagerly taken on additional duties as assigned…. no one at Norwalk Public Schools had ever expressed or even alluded to any concerns about her job performance.”

It states, “Notably, there was never any mention, during or before the April 9, 2021 meeting, of how the retitling of roles might benefit student learning, enhance educator efficacy, or increase student achievement.”

Though a letter from Estrella said the job elimination was “not based on your performance,” Chumney was subsequently told by a recruiter that the short CAO tenure created “an almost impossible situation for you to get another job,” the complaint states.

“With a term of employment this short, you’re damaged goods, especially if you want to get a Chief Academic Officer or Superintendent role in another district,” another recruiter was reported to have said.

Chumney took the “first and only job offer” she received, becoming a school principal with a “$95,000 per year reduction in salary, in a city over 300 miles from the geographic area where she had lived for her entire adult and professional life,” the complaint states.

It states:

  • Defendants knew that Plaintiff would not leave the security of her employment with the NYCDOE to accept the position as NPS Chief Academic Officer without a long-term employment contract.”
  • Defendants never intended to honor the three-year term of the Employment Agreement,
  • Plaintiff has sustained economic damages due to the loss of her long-term employment with the NYCDOE, and expenses associated with her subsequent long distance move to accept a lower-level position at a significantly reduced salary.”
  • “Plaintiff has suffered damages, including economic losses, extreme indignities and humiliation, severe emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of standing in the community, and destruction of her personal and professional reputation.”

 

NPS rebuttals; Goorevitch said to be serving as a consultant

Estrella’s public mentions of a new strategic operating plan predate Chumney’s hiring. In September 2020, Estrella told NancyOnNorwalk that the “Connecticut School for Change” was finalizing a review of the previous strategic operating plan.

Spahr said Thursday that the NPS reorganization was “part of an overall desire to meet the needs of the students of this District.”

“A Strategic Plan was presented to the Board in May 2021,” Spahr wrote. “It was developed by with the assistance of a Task Force as well as with the advice of the ‘Connecticut Center for School Change’ (a consulting firm retained for this purpose originally by Superintendent Adamowski). It is a far-fetched claim to assert that this was all done to remove an employee.”

The complaint “is incorrect in the claim that the reorganization that resulted in the elimination of Ms. Chumney’s position was to achieve another purpose,” Wilcox Williams said. “Ms.  Goorevitch’s separate contract with the Norwalk Board of Education had expired by its terms, and there was no need related to Ms. Goorevitch to undertake a reorganization. The reorganization was undertaken with expert advice strictly for educational reasons. Since her retirement, Ms. Goorevitch has continued to serve Norwalk Public Schools as a consultant.”

The allegation that Estrella told Chumney that it was “essential” for her to move to Norwalk is “simply incorrect,” Wilcox Williams said.

“The Board of Ed does not require that any employee, Central Office employees included, reside in Norwalk, as the Board would not want to limit the pool of applicants for positions in that manner. … Dr. Estrella herself lives in Westchester County, New York,” Wilcox Williams wrote.

Driscoll’s legal filing states that Chumney omitted some of her email regarding the length of her contract. According to Driscoll, Chumney wrote, “”I propose lengthening it to June, 2023, yet I am happy to discuss. I am committed to doing whatever it takes to make a substantial contribution to Norwalk Public Schools and that the City of Norwalk, both as an employee and as a new member of the community who will relocate to take on this position.”

The contract laid out the possibility of termination “in accordance with the Teacher Tenure Act” and if the Board of Education “eliminates the position of Chief Academic Officer,” Driscoll states.

“It is admitted that in April 2021 Estrella recommended to the Board of Education that the administrative positions of the Central Office be reorganized,” Driscoll’s reply states. “…Plaintiff was informed that when the reorganization was finalized, she was welcome to apply for any vacant position for which she was qualified.”

Chumney complaint 21-1116

Reply from Driscoll 21-1216

8 comments

Jo Bennett December 24, 2021 at 8:43 am

Here we go again… ka-ching, ka-ching, on the backs of voiceless taxpayers.
This article also underscores the ridiculous salaries we fund for roles that have no corollary in the private market. And why the heck do we have a superintendent who has so little stock/faith in Norwalk Public Schools that her own kid isn’t educated here?

Electorate apathy is kind of understandable.

DryAsABone December 24, 2021 at 10:28 am

Follow the money…
A native of Richmond,Va has returned home, blaming northerners for her failures. How many times have I heard that?
She made $150,403 in 2016 in the NY Public Schools and chased greenbacks ever since.
And now we get to pay for her litigious exit.
Why is it that people in the public education business want private sector benchmarks but wrap themselves in public sector golden parachutes?
Next door in Stamford Tamu Lucero is costing the town well over $300,000 because the BoE has hurt her feelings…I smell a lawsuit there in due course.

Piberman December 24, 2021 at 11:50 am

Old timers know our BOE is no stranger to expensive litigation. Ultimately its taxpayers who ante up. Surprising not much attention is paid to just how we educate our kids. Here the figures are deeply disappointing.

Will the Supt ever announce a new plan for improving numbers of graduating students meeting CT Education Dept standards ? The CT Edu Dept’s website shows most of our City’s graduating students fail to meet CT State standards on math and sciences. A huge handicap in our ever more hi-tech economy. And that most of our graduating students never secure 4 yr college degrees.

Surely we ought insist much higher achievements.

Why can’t we do better for our students ?

Victor Budnik December 24, 2021 at 12:55 pm

Too bad these people in high places,in Norwalk’s education system, sounds like something smells 🐟! Years ago we had people that cared about our kids! what a shame!!

Claire Schoen December 27, 2021 at 2:55 pm

@piberman Can you please provide a link to the data that supports your statement that “most of our graduates never secure 4-year college degrees?” I’m having a hard time believing this.

Harry December 27, 2021 at 4:01 pm

Maybe the board finally realized Chumney was involved in a federal lawsuit and other complaints filed against her within the NYCDOE

Henry smith December 28, 2021 at 7:00 pm

Harry: Doubt that would matter to the Board. I presume they knew of the issues surrounding Ms. Goorevitch in her previous position in NY and hired her anyway.

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