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Parochial School Sued; Defections Expected

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two dozen parents have sued a highly regarded parochial school over dismissal of the school board, the church’s plans to eliminate the seventh and eighth grades and concerns over the control of $600,000 raised mostly by parents.

The dispute has prompted an apparent mass defection from St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal School, where officials said only “a few handfuls” of students had committed to return in the fall despite Tuesday’s renewal application deadline.

Of the estimated 206 kindergartners through eighth-graders attending the Coldwater Canyon campus, at least 130 have applied to other private schools in the Valley and surrounding areas, parents and school officials said. Other families said they were considering public or home school.

“This school is a jewel in the Valley, and it’s being systematically destroyed,” said Bill Pace, 48, a former school board member whose two daughters attend St. Michael but don’t know where they’ll go next year. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to ruin it.”

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The long-building dispute erupted in February, when leaders of St. Michael & All Angels Church dismissed members of the parent-based school board and announced plans to abandon the seventh and eighth grades by June 2001.

In response, a group of parents sued the school last week, alleging fraud and deceit, breach of contract and emotional distress. Group members said Tuesday they are desperately searching for property to start a new school.

St. Michael officials acknowledged that their actions, designed to gain greater control over how the school is run, could jeopardize accreditation next year by two groups that evaluate a school’s academic strength and integrity.

“We’re concerned about disruption at the school,” said Don Haught, executive director of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, one of the accreditation groups. “We’re concerned this could impact the quality of education.”

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St. Michael officials decided to make changes at the financially healthy school primarily to preserve academic excellence, said school spokeswoman Diane Bryant, though the reason for eliminating the seventh and eighth grades stems more from the school not having adequate facilities for students.

“There’s been a lot of anger and hurt,” Bryant said, adding that the decisions were made only after much soul-searching. “We want a more harmonious environment that’s conducive to learning.”

Calls to church officials and school staff members, including the Rev. Ellen R. Hill, the rector, were referred to Bryant.

Parents and teachers said the upheaval hasn’t been good for students, who see the school as the center of their worlds and don’t want to leave their friends. Some parents said their children over the past month have cried a lot more, wet their beds and experienced difficulties sleeping and concentrating.

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At least 24 parents are represented in the lawsuit, filed March 24 in Los Angeles Superior Court, which accuses St. Michael officials of causing emotional distress, as well as breach of contract, and fraud and deceit.

The latter accusations stem in part from $600,000 accumulated over the years from a tuition surplus, donations and fund-raising efforts, many led by parent volunteers. Los Angeles attorney Eric J. Emanuel said parents gave or raised money with the understanding that they would have a say in how it’s spent.

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The group of parents, which Emanuel said could climb to 100 and turn into a class-action lawsuit, will seek an undetermined amount in damages. Parents said they want to be certain the $600,000 will go toward students and not the church.

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Church officials said the new changes still allow for parental opinions, and that the money has always been earmarked for the school.

Both Emanuel and the school’s San Diego-based attorney, James Clapp, said they hope to reach a settlement.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said Peter Bergman, a soap opera actor who is scouting the Valley for a private school for his daughter. “It appears there will be no St. Michael next year. It’s sad, and it’s all needless.”

Bryant said, even if there’s a severe decrease in students, “the school is not going to close, and the quality of education will not suffer. When all is said and done, this church and school will still be here.”

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The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles said it has received several dozen letters from angry parents and offered pastoral advice to parents and administrators. But officials said the diocese isn’t taking a position on St. Michael because it leaves governance to a school, unless a school asks for involvement, which St. Michael hasn’t.

The diocese, however, called the St. Michael situation unusual.

“I’m glad to say this doesn’t happen often” in the diocese’s 38 schools throughout Southern California, or even nationwide, said Serena Beeks, executive director of the commission on schools. “It’s a matter of concern [for the diocese] because it results in broken relationships. It makes us sad.”


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