Diocese of Madison rebuffs call for investigation as longtime staff, students leave St. Maria Goretti school

MADISON, Wis. — The Bishop of Madison has rebuffed a petition from hundreds of parents and parishioners for an investigation into the St. Maria Goretti school under the leadership of its parish priest and a new principal hired in March 2021.

A petition to the Diocese of Madison and shared with News 3–which organizers said was signed by 560 past and present school parents, staff, parishioners, and other concerned parties–asked for a third-party investigation into the school’s working conditions, the hiring process for the principal, and the community’s perspective of the new direction of the St. Maria Goretti parish and school.

Significant staff turnover

The concerns come amid new leadership in both the school and the parish. In 2019, Fr. Scott Emerson replaced longtime Fr. Mike Burke, who was beloved throughout the community and retired in 2017. In early 2021, the parish hired Mr. Bob Schell as school principal; he had previously served for nineteen years as a teacher and then principal in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District.

According to the letter, the investigation request comes after the entire kitchen staff and a long-time administrative assistant left the school in the past week, with staff saying they felt unable to report toxic working conditions to the principal. Since the letter, organizers say two more teachers have put in their resignation notices. In total, letter organizers and current parents said Monday that 40%, or 12 out of 29 teachers and administrative and food staff, had quit this year–most of them in the last two months.

In a statement, Fr. Emerson said the school could not discuss personnel matters, but that staff turnover was indicative of a nationwide trend.

“Staff turnover is part of running an elementary school and teaching in pandemic conditions is highly stressful,” he said in a statement. “Other public and private schools alike have experienced teachers leaving both before and after this school year started, and the labor shortage in the education field and in the economy in general is well-noted.”

But parents and petition organizers say there’s a lack of transparency surrounding the departures, and a cultural trend in leadership that worries them.

“When staff have resigned, Mr. Schell has been dishonest about the rationale behind their departures, further eroding trust in Mr. Schell among parents and staff,” the letter stated. “This pattern of staff and family departures, weak leadership, and poor communication is destroying the St. Maria Goretti community and raises serious doubts about the future of St. Maria Goretti Catholic School under Mr. Schell’s leadership.”

In a statement to News 3 and in a letter responding to the petition, the Bishop of Madison rebuffed the calls for an investigation.

“Along with various expressions of concern that were received from some, we’ve also recently received significant letters of strong and consistent support from some school families regarding the direction of the parish school, its leadership, and Catholic formation of their children,” a spokesperson for the Diocese of Madison said in an email.

“This petition and its demands demonstrate a clear lack of understanding of how the Church works and administers it [sic] parishes and schools, based on its practices and on Church law.”

Parents concerned as enrollment declines, staff departs

Three parents of current students who signed the open letter and know teachers and other employees of the school say it’s the staff departures that are the highest concern. “They’re falling apart, they’re in tears, they say ‘I can’t go back in there’,” Chris Jessup said of staff members. A St. Maria Goretti parishioner of 21 years, he’s had at least one child in the school for the last 17 years.

Christine Hammond’s daughter has attended the school on and off for the past six years.

“It’s harder when you have an older child and actually comes home and says ‘Mom what’s going on, where’s this person or where’s that person?'” Hammond said. “We love our teachers, we love our staff, we love our children. I really just want everybody to come together…we all want the same thing and we all want to keep the SMG that we know and we love, and we’re just asking for answers.”

By the end of August, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that enrollment at the parish school had dropped by about 75 students (out of a high of more than 400) amid rising concerns over the new principal’s connections to Father Richard Heilman, a Cross Plains priest who has spread misinformation about the pandemic and the January 6 insurrection. Since 2017, the St. Maria Goretti parish membership had declined by more than 200 people, the WSJ reported.

“We need help,” John Conlon said. He has two students at the school, and believes the staff departures are indicative of poor leadership. “To leave the school after 18 years with no notice, come in one day and leave, along with kitchen staff, the four people that walked out–that’s just not normal, and we need to get to the bottom of what is going  on and what is causing this in a leadership role that would make this happen.”

Early on in the school year, petition organizers say Mr. Schell disbanded COVID safety protocols that the school had put in place for the last school year, and the school made headlines in the WSJ for at first making masks optional.

“The principal came in and tore up our protocol and threw it away, and said everyone should just come in with no masks, or parents choose what they want to do,” Conlon said. The majority of parents who work in health care and had students in the school have signed the petition and withdrawn their children, petition organizers said.

‘Full Confidence in his Leadership’: Diocese Response

Mr. Schell served as church pastoral council for a time at St. Mary of Pine Bluff Catholic Church with Father Heilman, a connection that concerned some school families and parishioners when Schell was hired at the school earlier in 2021. Heilman has made frequent appearances on a right wing talk show that has promoted misinformation about the pandemic, according to reporting from the Wisconsin Examiner.

In a petition response sent out Thursday evening addressing the open letter from parishioners and school families, Bishop Donald J. Hying of the Madison Catholic Diocese defended Mr. Schell, Father Emerson, and what he called an “increased emphasis on religion” at the school.

“Change is always difficult to navigate because it asks us to readjust our thinking and ways of doing things; most people resist innovation,” Bishop Hying wrote, who has served as Bishop in Madison since June 25, 2019. “The changes instituted in your Catholic school reflect the desire of your leadership to strengthen the Catholic identity and formation of our students.”

The Madison Diocese has full confidence in Schell’s leadership at the school, the bishop wrote, and said he had not received any specific information that would merit a review of Mr. Schell’s performance as a principal. He called the accusations gossips and lies, and said that those pushing for a change are doing so because they are not religious enough.

“What I do hear from some quarters is disregard and resistance to the increased Catholic practice within the school. ‘We don’t need all that Jesus stuff,’ is an actual quote from a school parent,” Hying wrote. “The fact that the majority of parish families who send their children to the school do not attend Mass at the parish on Sundays or support the life and mission of the parish suggests to me that many do not want an actual Catholic school, but simply a private Madison school which is academically excellent.”

Parents pushed back on the characterization, saying their concerns did not center on religious or academic changes but rather issues they saw with leadership style.

“It’s not just change; it’s poor leadership that’s causing these teachers to say, ‘I can’t be here, I can’t deal with these people anymore,'” Conlon said. “That’s what we’re trying to stop.”

“It’s just been an egotistical leadership style that has been condescending to the parents, teachers, and the kids in a way that’s really made us more dispassionate about the parish that we used to love,” Jessup said. “It feels like Bishop Hying has basically said, ‘I think the problem’s the parents not going to church.’ The answer to that really is…we’re going elsewhere where we feel more welcome. However, we love the school, we love it to death.”

Records: Principal was reprimanded while at Middleton-Cross Plains

Mr. Schell spent eight years as the principal at Elm Lawn Elementary School, according to his biography.

Records obtained by parishioners from the Middleton-Cross Plains School District and provided to News 3 Investigates show the MCPSD formally reprimanded Mr. Schell in early 2020; he had previously been provided with an action plan which included a directive to increase trust from families, staff and students. A spokesperson from the district did not comment on the records or Mr. Schell’s time there.

The reprimand came after records say Mr. Schell asked a 3rd-grade student to spell an inappropriate word to one of his peers.

The action lacked “professional judgement in connection with the supervision of students and effective communication and shows poor decision-making judgment when dealing with student conflicts,” the letter of reprimand stated.

That’s part of why parents say they want the hiring process at the school investigated, with Jessup saying there had been little insight into the process for hiring Mr. Schell.

“We all want to keep the SMG that we know and we love and we’re just asking for answers,” Hammond said.

Last week, Fr. Emerson said that the parish and Diocese leadership had met with Mr. Schell and school faculty to start hearing concerns.

It’s “the first step towards a healthier environment,” Fr. Emerson said in a statement.