THE fact that a priest who heads the state's oldest Catholic school could be fired by a board of lay people came as a surprise to some parents, Catholics and other St. Louis School observers.
Stand by for another tremor in tradition: The next head of the 900-student boys school may not be a priest.
"The president could be a layman," said the Rev. John Russi, head of the Marianist Province of the Pacific with headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Russi, who preceded the Rev. Mario Pariante as St. Louis president, is in Honolulu this week for a meeting of the Marianist Center of Hawaii.
"We are facing the personnel shortages that every other religious group is facing. We are just starting now to do a search." Russi said.
The search will be conducted by the 20-member board of trustees which dismissed Pariante at its quarterly meeting Wednesday. Board Chairman Walter Kirimitsu and evaluation committee Chairwoman Margaret Oda said Pariante failed to meet leadership standards set by the board and released him seven months before his contract ended.
Approval of the trustees' next choice for president lies with the St. Louis corporate directors who include Russi and three other members of the Marianist religious order as well as Kirimitsu and St. Louis Principal Burton Tomita, who is acting administrator.
St. Louis and Chaminade University, which shares the Kaimuki campus, are operated by separate corporations, said Russi. The religious order which started the schools continues to own and manage the land. Incidentally, Chaminade led the way in selecting a lay president 10 years ago.
Russi, who oversees Marianist schools and activities in California, Hawaii and Korea, said: "I didn't come over because I expected this to happen. None of us thought it was going to happen. It was not a meeting planned to let him go," he said. For Pariante, "It is a tough pill to swallow.
"I knew there were some difficulties that the board had with Father Mario's administrative style," said Russi, who attended the board meeting as a guest. "Everybody wants to make it seem athletics vs. academics. That was not the issue at the board meeting."
Russi, whose three-year term spanned turmoil over a board proposal to turn the school coed, said: "I think Father
Mario brought some great contributions to the program, in the expansion of technology, in fine arts. We have to recognize and thank him for his legacy at St. Louis."
Russi recalled that he faced the issue of mainland vs. island "style," which some supporters say was the undoing of the assertive Brooklyn-born Pariante. "I was fortunate when I came there were two trustees who broke me into island style," said Russi. "I was a Californian. There is a difference, I found you can't be as direct as you are on the mainland. I found I would be called and told in a very gentle way 'next time maybe you better handle it this way.' "
Russi declined to discuss details of the four-hour board of trustees session. He characterized it as "a strong meeting, by and far very respectful of the individual. People spoke honestly and forthright. I think it was trying to look at every possible option for the good of Marianist education at St. Louis."
Pariante attended the first half of the session, then was excluded for the executive session about his status. Russi said a television report of "shouting matches was totally inaccurate. Shouting just didn't take place." Two board members left the downtown meeting to take the news to Pariante before a statement was read to waiting news reporters.
Russi said the St. Louis faculty is preparing a statement in response to other media coverage, which he said "was a cheap shot ... when it was said that they graduate and can't read. I thought it was very inappropriate when you classify 900 kids in that general way.
"The faculty was so upset they are publishing a statement. They took it as an affront to their professionalism as teachers, and to the academic standards they have for their students and to the achievement of their students." Russi said the faculty, which met yesterday, decided not to issue a comment about Pariante's dismissal. "They didn't want to get involved with board of trustees."
Asked whether changes are in the wind for the school, Russi said: "With any change of management, we look at what are our current needs and what should we be working on. There are some issues that will be addressed by the board."
He was asked whether the trustees micro-manage campus affairs. "Not usually, unless there is a situation." One such situation was the September 1998 destruction of property at a Las Vegas hotel by football team members.
"It was very inappropriate for those young men to behave that way," Russi said. "The board asked (school officials) to work with Kitty Lagareta (a Communications Pacific executive who is a trustee) on how to present to the public the facts and not the rumors."
Russi said: "The whole purpose for Marianists being here is the formation of those young men, to provide a good education in a family-like environment, to challenge them to be of service to the community and to be adaptable to the future. There are so many wonderful qualities to the school, the teachers care and spend time, encourage and challenge them."
Private school operatesBy Rod Ohira
as a corporation
St. Louis School operates as a corporation with a board that sets policy and a chief executive and operating officer to implement it.
On Wednesday, the school's board of trustees fired its CEO for failing to carry out policy.
The Rev. Mario Pariante repeatedly acted beyond his scope of authority by incurring expenses from projects that weren't approved by the board, sources said.
Brother Edward Gomez, vice president of the Marianist Center which is St. Louis' and Chaminade University's landlord, supports the board's decision.
"Board members have data and perspectives which the ordinary person does not have and (the public) is not privy to a lot of the confidential items that they may have," said the 61-year-old Gomez, a former St. Louis principal who has spent 30 years on the Waialae campus.
"So I believe for a board to come up with a decision after they've pondered over it, discussed it, even argued over it, that they are doing what's best for the institution or organization they serve."
According to bylaws established when St. Louis was incorporated in 1989, the board of trustees is responsible for the overall operations of the school.
The duties of the president, hired by the board, are defined in the bylaws as:
"The principal shall be the president and shall serve as chief executive and chief operating officer with power to perform the duties customarily incident to his office and any other powers or duties assigned by the board of trustees."
The scope of academics that the president is responsible for covers the entire educational process at the school and not just curriculum or grades, Gomez said.
"At St. Louis, the entire education system is concerned with the development of the total person _ physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional," Gomez said.
"We have a reputation for being a jock school which I disagree with. We have a super, excellent athletic program, which is football, but we also have an excellent drama program and a community service program that demands of each student 20 hours of community service per year."
Pariante's evaluation reportedly included a survey sent out to some alumni, family and general residents.
Dennis Chai, a 1961 St. Louis graduate who is an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at the University of Hawaii, received the questionnaire last summer.
The survey consisted of 20-30 questions with multiple choice answers, Chai said.
"It asked stuff like what do you think of the academic climate at the school or has the school gotten better," he added. "There were some questions about athletics, like should it be emphasized less.
"My impression was that they were trying to improve the climate at the school and were asking for input. There wasn't any reference to any specific person being evaluated."
Priests style drewBy Rob Perez
Asked whether he agreed with the decision to dismiss the Rev. Mario Pariante, Frank Young, president of St. Louis' parent-teacher guild until last week, said he didn't have enough information to take a position.
But Young downplayed speculation that the firing was related to a rift between Pariante and supporters of St. Louis' successful football program.
"I don't think it has anything to do with football," he said.
Young said he received many complaints from parents -- some who had no connection to the football program -- about Pariante's leadership, but other parents complimented his management style.
It was a style that sometimes generated controversy.
Pariante's decision several years ago to buy a $38,000 Grand Jeep Cherokee, for instance, drew criticism because the school had budgeted only $20,000 for a car purchase, according to Young. At the time, Pariante was driving a school-owned Honda, which was sold or traded in, resulting in another $8,000 of school money going to the Jeep purchase, Young said.
Pariante kicked in the remaining $10,000, Young quoted Pariante as saying.
Parents also were upset last year when Pariante used a ring ceremony for the junior class to bring up the controversial Las Vegas football trip, Young said.
Although the ceremony was meant to celebrate the juniors' move to the top class, Pariante mentioned the Las Vegas trip to remind them that they should turn in fellow students if those students are seen doing something wrong, Young said.
"It kind of ruined my kid's ceremony," said Young, who has one son attending St. Louis and two others who are alumni. "It turned the ring ceremony into a funeral parlor."
Young said one of Pariante's shortcomings was that he sought but didn't use feedback from others before making a decision. "He kind of did what he wanted to do. He didn't necessarily cherish the opinions of everybody else."
Class president praisesBy Pat Omandam
Pariante for courage
The senior class president of St. Louis School is praising Rev. Mario Pariante for his efforts to strengthen academics at the 153-year-old school, and is disappointed in the St. Louis board of trustees for firing him.
"I think he's a very good leader," said Ryan Hurley, president of the Class of 2000.
Hurley provided the Star-Bulletin with a copy of a letter he wrote yesterday to Pariante. Hurley thanked the 45-year-old Marianist priest for his courage in trying to make academic changes, and for being a mentor and a friend.
"I guess a lot of people didn't think you were doing the right thing, but rest assured you were," Hurley wrote.
"Even though things did not turn out for the best, you can be proud, not only because you were president of a fine school, but also because you stood up for what you felt was right."
At the St. Louis campus, students said they were told not to speak to the news media about Pariante's dismissal, which was announced yesterday morning to students and faculty. The students said they would get into trouble if they did comment, and campus security officers escorted reporters and TV crews off the campus.
As students were leaving at 2:30 p.m., most quickly walked past reporters while a few older students stood nearby sternly telling underclassmen not to say anything. Those who gathered across the street at St. Louis Drive-In were equally tight-lipped.
A few students who declined to give their names, however, did say it was a sad day for the school because they liked what Pariante had done.
Pariante, school administration and faculty officials did not return telephone messages In his letter to Pariante, Hurley said his mother taught him that he should always do the right thing, not because it might make him popular or put him on top, but because it was the right thing to do.
"In your few years at St. Louis, you have been faced with many decisions and have been forced to make many decisions that really had no right answer," he wrote.
"I truly believe that you have made these decisions to the best of your ability, without outside influence, and they were the right decisions to make."
Hurley said he's disappointed Pariante won't be there to watch him graduate. Pariante counseled Hurley about his college career choices and helped him sort through his options.
He faxed his letter to Pariante's office yesterday afternoon.
"I just wish they had your courage and would have stood up for what they believed," Hurley wrote. "Sadly, I fear that it is too late for this letter to do anything, but please realize that through my eyes you truly were doing the right thing and that you had a great effect on my life.
"Many others and I will miss you at St. Louis, and I would be honored to have you at graduation as my guest."