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CASA DE ORO – For much of the last 30 years, a small elementary school just beyond the south side of Mt. Helix has been a quiet anchor for families seeking affordable private education for their children.
Under the dedicated guidance of its Principal Karen Laaperi (picture right), Santa Sophia Academy, a Catholic school, has served generations of families in Casa de Oro's multi-cultural community, consistently sending its graduates on to the best high schools in San Diego County and a high percentage on to the nation’s best colleges.
But with virtually little warning and no consultation with the school community, parents say, the San Diego diocese suddenly decided to enforce a policy that hadn't been enforced for years and is forcing Laaperi to leave her post.
In a letter to the school community, John Galvan, director of the diocese office for schools, informed the school community that he had decided to enforce a “long-standing diocese policy’’ that restricts relatives supervising family members.
Laaperi, with permission of the diocesan leadership at the time, hired her son, employing him as a teacher. Parents say the diocese was aware of the original hiring and allowed it. Now, suddenly, the diocese made a decision that is forcing the principal to leave after decades of exemplary service.
Laaperi has attempted to keep a low profile despite the angry parents. In an email to to the parents which was shared by parents with LaMesaToday.com, Laaperi tried to calm the situation saying "It is my opinion there is nothing to gain in seeking legal action or making this public. I believe we should always strive for our reputation to be an image of Christ to all who know us or may come to know us.''
Kevin Eckery, vice chancellor of the San Diego Diocese, acknowledged that the nepotism rule had not been enforced under the previous bishop, but the organization began conversations about the rule soon after new Bishop Robert McElroy was appointed in 2015.
Eckery said the move at Santa Sophia was not spurred by specific complaints, but that he was aware there were "some expressions of discomfort'' on the part of parents who didn't want to discuss teacher performance with the principal.
Colleges and universities often find ways to create alternate reporting lines for family members working together, but "in a small school there aren't many options,'' he said. "The teachers report directly to the head of school.''
In her note to the school families Laaperi wished the school community well. She said she would finish out the school year and would continue to support the education mission of the school.
Laaperi repeated that she wanted the school community to keep the school and the children's needs first, but it was clear this decision was not sitting well with many closely associated with the school. Some are threatening legal action.
Many in the school community felt this was another example of the diocese ruling from on high as if the principal was a parish priest who could be reassigned without parishioner input. Eckery said it is not diocese practice to discuss such personnel issues with a school's parents.
One long-time supporter of the school circulated a note through social media expressing outrage that was typical of many of the Laaperi's admirers. The text is printed here:
I received, as many of you did, a letter announcing that an arbitrary administrative decision is taking from this great school one of the greatest educators in the San Diego area. Though Ms. Laaperi has accepted this action and has responded with grace, I do not believe the school community should accept this action without further discussions with the people or person who has made this poor decision. In a church beset with opaque and troubling management throughout its handling of church scandals, it is inconceivable that the same hierarchy would make such a poor decision for the Santa Sophia community without a full and transparent process.
I know I don't need to convince the generations of parents who watched Ms. Laaperi transform this school through force of her spirit and talents into a jewel of this region. All over America there are successful young lives still playing out that had the seeds of success planted by this woman, this leader, this inspirational and caring educator. We should not let her go quietly into the darkness that spurred this decision. We should demand that the Bishop appear before us and explain how, after nearly three decades, a bureaucratic decision like this can be issued from on high with so little explanation. All over San Diego, couples who work in academic settings, are hired as a team to accommodate their lives and to enrich the institutions seeking talent. Issues of nepotism and supervisory conflicts are easily handled through transparent, creative management steps.
I am afraid this decision smacks of the old church. The people of San Diego and the children of our community are diminished by this decision. Please join me in writing to the Bishop and demanding a meeting so our school community can participate in this issue. To deny future generations of the skills Ms. Laaperi has honed over three decades is, in my view, a sin.
Laaperi referred parents to the Santa Sophia Pastor Devdas Masillamony or to Galvan's diocese office.