OTTAWA HILLS, Ohio — In the wake of Epworth United Methodist Church and recently-fired Epworth Preschool Director Jane Lyon trading barbs over alleged financial impropriety, the Ottawa Hills organization announced Thursday the preschool will close its doors for the remainder of the school year due to a lack of teaching staff after multiple resignations.
The church's statement on the school's closure reads, in full:
"We have been working diligently to reopen the Epworth Preschool as has been our goal since the beginning. Our heart has always been with the children of our preschool and making sure we had qualified staffing and all of the State of Ohio requirements were met to provide for their needs. Even throughout this week and up to this moment, we have been working tirelessly to onboard teachers to replace those who resigned. Further, we worked to make sure the rooms were ready and all things prepared for you and the children. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the teaching staff in place to reopen this school year.
With all of this in mind, reluctantly the Preschool will close for the remainder of this school year. We apologize that this has had to happen as we truly wanted and planned to remain open. Our Finance Director has begun the refund process. Because records were not properly maintained by the former preschool director, we are working as quickly as possible to refund tuition with a target date of having everyone refunded on or before April 15. If there are cases where you need the money more quickly, let our finance office know, and we will address that on a case-by-case basis and do our utmost to accommodate you."
The news has disrupted the lives of many students, families and teachers who are demanding more answers.
Kristen Ireland, a parent of two students at the preschool, said it has not only been hard for her but her children as well, who she had to help process the unprecedented closure.
"At this point, we want our money received in a timely manner because we've all been left to scramble," Ireland said.
Ireland claimed the school's statement on the closure is false and said the reason it had to close for the year was because Mary Roesti, who was named interim director after Lyon's termination, lacked the proper licensure to assume the role.
WTOL 11 searched the Ohio Department of Education's database. We found one person with the name Mary Catherine Roesti who had one certificate for teaching high school courses, which expired in 2004, and one license for teaching high school courses, which expired in 2010.
Ireland also claimed that the church changed the school's locks twice in two weeks and didn't give teachers the keys to their classrooms.
"It's not acceptable to rip these kids' world away and not even say an apology," Christina Gondol, another Epworth parent, said. "This was handled in such a terrible way that I think you can see there's something clearly going on from the other side."
Lyon said she was fired after she questioned why almost $47,000 was transferred from the preschool's budget.
Parents in the community created a Facebook group and have said after countless attempts they have not been acknowledged by the school's leadership team.
WTOL 11 spoke with Epworth's senior pastor Stephen Swisher who said while the preschool is a part of the ministry, he has nothing to do with its finances.
A preschool chairperson in an email said Lyon was supposed to report to Swisher otherwise.
"It was overseen by the preschool director, and the finance is completely separate from my office or any other offices. It was a specific standalone office from our finance director and our other staff," Swisher said.
Swisher said the church is working diligently to move forward and refund the money for the families.
"I regret that this has happened, I'm sorry this happened. If we could've found any other way we would have," he said. We love this community; we love the people of this community and church of all ages and backgrounds."
But it is far from enough for the around 100 families who still want action taken against the pastor who has also stated a lack of teachers was one of the reasons the school had to close.
Teachers like Becca Murray said she and other teachers were willing to work extra for the students and said this is not the case.
Ireland claimed teachers created a schedule of how to cover all classes for the remainder of the school year, which they then submitted to Roesti.
"I was ready to go for two morning sessions for what I was supposed to do and likewise for others," Murray said.
Gondol, among many others in the Facebook group, are not standing down and will continue to ask for answers since what the church is saying does not add up to them.
"The church doesn't understand what they did to these kids," Gondol said. "The Church looks at them at figures on an excel sheet that is $200 a kid, they're not in real school yet, it doesn't matter. "For these kids, school is their life."
There is a petition advocating for Swisher to be terminated, which as of Friday night, has over 600 signatures.
WTOL 11 reached out to Swisher for further comment to see if he would be open to a requested meeting with parents. He said:
"We would be happy to meet with parents when we have something to say such as introducing new staff, plans, moving forward, etc. But we cannot speak about why the former director was let go as that is a personal matter."