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Va. School's Shift Away From Catholicism Leaves Board, Parents in Turmoil

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008

What happens when you take Catholicism out of a Catholic school?

That's what parents, teachers and administrators are exploring in a battle over the fate of Notre Dame Academy, a high school in Middleburg that has declared it will no longer follow rules governing Catholic schools despite objections from the bishop of Arlington County and many in the school community.

Bishop Paul S. Loverde described himself as "deeply disappointed" by the school's action in an open letter in October. He wrote that the school could no longer administer the Eucharist in its chapel and that it would no longer be allowed to recruit students from Catholic middle schools or call itself a Catholic school.

The 260-student school, on an estate at the end of a long, winding driveway, has been Catholic since its founding in 1965, although in recent years slightly more than half of its students have been non-Catholic. The peaceful campus setting with stone buildings belies the turmoil within.

Many members of the school's board of trustees have resigned recently or been forced off. Those who remain have said the shift was necessary for the school's financial future. Because of a lawsuit alleging a breach of fiduciary duty, filed by a former board member, members referred questions to their attorney, Rory Clark. He also spoke on their behalf at a contentious community meeting Nov. 19.

Clark said in an interview that the school had been unable to find a qualified headmaster for four years and that the search had been made more difficult by a diocesan requirement that Catholic schools have a Catholic headmaster and submit to curricular review by the church. Clark also said that the school has been losing money for years and that it could not sustain itself on its current path.

Board members announced at the Nov. 19 meeting that the school hired a new headmaster, Elizabeth Murray, who will start early next year. Although Murray is Catholic, the board had decided to abandon the policy before she became a candidate, Clark said, and is not planning to reconsider its decision.

Murray did not respond to a phone call and e-mails seeking comment.

Some parents counter that a popular administrator, Daniel Dolan, had applied for the job and would have been willing to operate under church oversight. And they say that they were assured before they reenrolled their children this academic year that the school would remain Catholic. The changes will take effect next school year.

"I don't think that they thought parents would care," said Diane Beauchamp, a Catholic mother of both a freshman and a graduate of the school. "But most of us don't like to be lied to." She said she would pull her child from the school at the end of the year.

Tuition is $17,400 a year, plus fees of about $1,000, according to the school's Web site.

Catholic families aren't the only ones who are upset.

"The board is dysfunctional. The school is terrific," said Paul Goldstein, a Jewish father of a Notre Dame sophomore. "When the executive board says that it's going to rewrite the charter, that's a smack in the face to the bishop," which Goldstein said made it difficult for Catholic families to remain. As for him: "I send my kid to a Catholic school. For me, it's a question of fidelity and trust to what your mission is. They broke that trust."

But Clark said that day-to-day life at the school will remain largely the same.

"Next year, the school will still be celebrating its Catholic heritage," he said. "They won't be able to have Mass in school, but that's not the school's decision. That's the bishop's." Without the change, Clark said, "the school would have gone bankrupt and out of business. Staying the way they were was not an option."

Not all families are upset.

"I'm of the belief that when you're in a hole, you need to stop digging and you look at the changes that need to be made," said Tony Horkan, whose daughter is a freshman and whose son graduated from the school this year. Horkan, an Episcopalian, said that he sympathized with Catholic families who were upset but that he thought the changes will help Notre Dame compete with other private schools.

"The parents don't want to break with the school," Goldstein said. "The spirit of the concerned parents is to rectify the situation."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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