On a lovely evening last May, Dennis Powell and the other teachers and administrators at Denver's Machebeuf Catholic High School attended an assembly celebrating the achievements of another academic year. Machebeuf's principal, Dr. Elizabeth Mantelli, addressed the students and staffers gathered before her, and when speaking about the impressive number of scholarships earned by graduating seniors, she asked the teachers to take a bow. The applause they received was generous and heartfelt, remembers Powell. He'd been teaching theology at the Park Hill neighborhood school for thirteen years, but he says he never tired of watching his young charges take the next step toward a productive and spiritually rewarding adult life.

The 65-year-old Powell, head of Machebeuf's theology department since 1981, was still aglow the next day when he was called into Mantelli's office. He says he had no sense of foreboding, given the close working relationship he and the principal had maintained during her four years there. "She told me I was a personal inspiration to her," Powell says, "which I took as a great compliment." He had found her to be warm, intelligent and supportive.

Mantelli was not doling out kudos on this day, however. Instead, she gave Powell a succinct letter: "I regret to inform you that I cannot offer you a teaching contract for the 1993-1994 school year. Thank you for your devoted service to Machebeuf Catholic High School. Good luck in your future endeavors."

When a dumbstruck Powell asked Mantelli why he was not being asked to return, he says that she told him, "R.I.F."--reduction in force. Although Mantelli did not elaborate, Powell knew that enrollment for the next school year was down; the total number of students at the beginning of the 1993-1994 term was about 300, comparable to the total from half a decade earlier but down from the previous year's 325. He began to have his doubts that this was the basis for his dismissal, though, when he learned that the same ax had fallen on some other veteran colleagues: counselor Joanna Williams; Jerome King, who specialized in theology and history; and Francois de Vangel, a Spanish instructor. Powell says that these teachers were the oldest on the Machebeuf staff--Williams and de Vangel were 55, while King was 57--and both King and de Vangel had suffered heart problems that required hospitalization during the previous year. The common speculation, disputed by the Church, is that the older teachers are endangered because they are more prone to suffer expensive health problems and they make more money (although after thirteen years, Powell's annual salary was only $23,000).

According to Powell, only Williams was told by Mantelli that the quality of her work had anything to do with the decision not to renew her contract. The reason given to the others was R.I.F.

An amateur boxer while growing up in New York City, Powell refused to accept this explanation without a fight. He did his best not to let his impending departure affect his students, and even attended an awkward going-away party thrown for the nonreturning staffers (including a pair who had chosen to retire) by other teachers. But he and de Vangel also filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) against the Archdiocese of Denver, which oversees operations at Machebeuf and forty other schools in Colorado.

Both de Vangel and Powell have now dropped their EEOC cases. (King, a Christian Brother who had taught in Archdiocese of Denver schools for 29 years, 18 of those at Machebeuf, decided against protesting the decision not to rehire him, and declined comment for this article. Williams moved to California and couldn't be reached for comment.) While de Vangel continues to believe that he was fired because of his age, he says his anger dissipated after he found employment outside the archdiocese. But Powell, who so far has failed to secure a teaching position, withdrew his EEOC action only after he hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit charging Archbishop of Denver J. Francis Stafford and the archdiocese with age discrimination--a violation the archdiocese, through its legal representatives, denies committing. Powell says he knows he's fighting an uphill battle, but adds that he can't keep silent. "They expected me to vent anger and go away," he says, "but I don't want the same thing that happened to me to happen to my fellow teachers in the Catholic school system."

Principal Mantelli now refers all questions about Dennis Powell to the Archdiocese of Denver. Archdiocese officials, citing the lawsuit, won't talk about the Powell case. And fear prevents many teachers, parents and students from discussing the dismissals of the four teachers; most of those who will talk have asked for anonymity. Students still at Machebeuf say they fear being labeled as troublemakers. Parents claim they don't want to make their children pay for their outspokenness. Teachers reveal their suspicion that taking a stand against the archdiocese could put their jobs in jeopardy. After all, each teacher in the Catholic system, no matter what his or her level of experience, is hired one year at a time, and each contract allows the archdiocese to sever it at any time. Church officials and lawyers refuse to use words like "termination," saying only that contracts aren't renewed.

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