SPRING HILL — Notre Dame Catholic School, rocked last month by the news that its beloved principal will leave at the end of the school year, now has a new leader waiting in the wings.
Dr. Lou Whitaker, a veteran educator who has served for the last nine years as principal of Pope John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, will split her time between the schools. Each school will have an assistant principal.
Father Richard Jankowski, who oversees the school for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg and also serves as priest at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Spring Hill, made the announcement Tuesday to dozens of parents who packed the church's parish hall.
The news comes five weeks after Jankowski stunned the Notre Dame community by announcing that Sister Eileen Woodbury, the school's principal since 2001, would not return this fall.
Notre Dame needs new energy to boost sagging enrollment, Jankowski said in a letter to parents last month, but the move sparked anger among parents who called Woodbury an integral part of the Notre Dame family.
Jankowski did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
In an interview with the Times, Whitaker said she understands parents' concerns. But the 62-year-old said she is optimistic that both Notre Dame and Pope John Paul in Citrus County can become stronger with a new leadership model at a time when Catholic schools are struggling with declining enrollment and financial woes.
"We have the same goals, the same philosophy," Whitaker said. "By pooling our resources, we can improve our enrollment, improve our financial situation and improve our teacher training."
Some parents question how two schools some 30 miles apart can share a principal. Whitaker said search committees will be formed soon to hire an assistant principal for each school by early summer.
"Both schools will have a full-time administrator," she said. "That's the key to this."
The goal is to find candidates who, with grooming, can eventually take the top spot at each school, she said.
Whitaker, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, said she has seen a similar strategy work.
From 1985 to 1995, she served as principal for Montini Catholic School in McHenry, Ill. The school had a primary building on one side of town and a middle school building on the other, and each campus had an assistant principal.
Whitaker then served as associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995 to 2001.
She spoke at Tuesday's meeting for more than an hour, using a PowerPoint presentation to outline her goals for the schools.
Parents contacted by the Times on Wednesday said they came away from the meeting impressed by Whitaker, but still stung by the loss of Woodbury and two other nuns who will depart with her. The nuns' split with the school, they said, was mishandled and never properly explained.
"(Whitaker) seems like she'll be wonderful, but if you still don't know what caused this, it's hard to be joyful," said Donna Coumoulos, who has a son in fifth grade at Notre Dame. "We have to back up to how this happened before we can move forward."
"A lot of things (Whitaker) said were innovative and I'm excited about it, but I think it could have been incorporated with the sisters there," said Linda Douglas, whose granddaughter is in the fifth grade.
Jankowski had promised an international search for a new principal.
A search committee was formed and the diocese received about half a dozen applications, but Jankowski ultimately decided to have Whitaker take the helm, said Frank Murphy, communications director for the St. Petersburg diocese.
The diocese bishop, the Most Rev. Robert Lynch, agreed to the new model for a two-year trial, Murphy said. He said cutting costs was not a factor.
"It's a new model for us and the bishop said let's try for it two years and learn from how it's working," Murphy said, adding that the diocese has plenty of talented staffers who can serve as administrators at the two schools.
"The vernacular would be we have a good bench of people who want to be principals and want to move up," he said. "It really has nothing to do with money. We're looking for the right talents that can build the school."
Woodbury had been an educator for more than three decades when she moved from New Jersey to take over at Notre Dame in 2001. She was the first nun to run the school since 1989.
Enrollment at Notre Dame was about 320 students in 2001 and has dropped to about 165 students.
Whitaker called the nuns "a blessing" for Notre Dame, but she noted Pope John Paul is among a growing number of Catholic schools that continue to operate without nuns on the staff.
"Catholic identity is in the hearts of the children," she said. "It is in teaching our faith and seeing that faith lives on. Lay people are going to have to play more of role."
Tim Frendberg, who has two students at Notre Dame and was on the search committee, agreed.
"I think this is a unique moment in the school's history and we need something bold and fresh," said Frendberg, himself a product of Catholic schools that did not have nuns on staff.
"Having the nuns was an awesome benefit to the school and I'm sad to see them go, but we will be a Catholic school without them."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.