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Catholic school's feud boils into view

Some parents of students at Academy of the Holy Names are angry about president Colleen Brady's treatment of teachers.

By RON MATUS
Published July 30, 2003

TAMPA - The Academy of the Holy Names is having a long, hot summer.

In April, dozens of parents booed the private school's president, Colleen Brady, because they thought she was mistreating teachers

Since then, some instructors have resigned or were denied contract extensions. A handful of parents moved children to other schools. A few others tried to start a school of their own.

Brady's supporters blame the problems on disgruntled teachers, but her most vocal critics, including parent Dario Diaz, say she is intolerant of dissent.

"Even if the education's good, I don't want people like that educating my children," said Diaz, a Tampa attorney who moved sons to other private schools over the summer.

The troubles have made their way to Tampa City Hall. City Council member Rose Ferlita, an Academy graduate and a member of its board of trustees, said parents have written to her at City Hall to gripe about Brady.

"Obviously, we are getting many letters," Ferlita said.

The exact nature of the dispute is unclear.

Few parents will speak publicly. Few trustees returned calls.

The squabbles come as the Bayshore Boulevard institution realizes a $15.5-million expansion plan. A new auditorium, cafeteria and library are in place at the 122-year-old Academy, which offers classes from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. A new athletic complex is on its way.

Brady was hired five years ago to lead the charge.

The Academy president is "strong willed and very focused," Ferlita said. "Sometimes that can translate as abrasive."

Brady blamed the sniping on growing pains.

Changes are being made at the Academy and "some people adjust better to that than others," Brady said.

While the feuding remains largely private, a few key episodes have pushed it into public light:

Dozens of parents turned out for the April meeting at the school - 65 to 75, according to Brady; 120, according to Diaz - to complain about the administration's treatment of a handful of popular teachers.

In May, a small group of parents led by retired banker Sheri Ellis said they were starting their own school. Ellis said the effort, which apparently has fizzled, had nothing to do with the Academy. But some of the former Holy Names teachers were on the new school's hiring list.

Trustees are reviewing whether it was appropriate for an Academy employee to do minor repair work on Brady's Davis Islands home. The work included ripping out old flooring in the kitchen and fixing a leaky roof, said one trustee, the Rev. Robert Gibbons. Brady said the employee inspected her air conditioner and repaired rotted wood near her rain gutters.

About 10 to 15 students have left because of the tensions, Brady said. The school has 870 students.

As for teachers, Brady said the Academy has replaced 12 to 15 employees - teachers and other staffers - every year since 1998, out of a staff of roughly 120. Twenty new people were hired for the school year that begins Sept. 2.

"That happens every single year in every single school," Brady said.

One former faculty member disagreed.

The Academy's turnover rate is "not normal, especially for a private school," said Jeff Pafunda, who resigned as the school's athletic director this year after a 10-year run. "There has to be something underlying."

Pafunda, who now teaches and coaches at Armwood High School, declined to be more specific.

"Nobody wants to burn any bridges," he said.

Another former teacher declined comment. A third did not return phone calls.

Discontent with Brady boiled over in the spring when she accused first-grade teacher Josephine Arthurs of insubordination, Diaz said. Arthurs, a 21-year employee, ultimately quit.

According to Diaz, several other teachers either resigned or were denied new contracts. One who vocally defended Arthurs was fired.

Brady said she could not comment on personnel matters.

Arthurs did not return calls, but her father called her situation "terrible."

"They all loved the school," he said, referring to the teachers who were let go.

Word of the dispute has reached the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, the school's spiritual sponsors in Albany, N.Y.

Barbara Pavlic, the order's provincial director, said in a written statement that the trustees in Tampa are developing plans to address concerns raised by parents and faculty. She said she could not comment more specifically, citing a policy against discussing personnel issues in public.

Only a few trustees returned calls.

Recent developments at the Academy are "99 percent positive and 1 percent people reacting different to change," said trustee Jeff Dowdle.

"You can't please everyone," added trustee Richard Montalbano, a senior vice president at the William R. Hough investment firm in St. Petersburg.

The dispute isn't a big deal yet, he said.

But, he added, if "this pettiness continues and it drives Colleen or some of the senior management away, it's going to worsen the situation."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Times staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 30, 2003, 01:33:02]


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