Epworth Church says its finances are all above board as preschool parents seek answers

The church’s claims are at odds with claims from the Epworth Preschool’s former director, who was fired within days of asking about the organization’s budget.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 4:13 PM EDT
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OTTAWA HILLS, Ohio (WTVG) - Epworth United Methodist Church said Monday the organization has been investigating discrepancies in the mismanagement of preschool tuition and registration funds for months, adding the annual audits from a local accounting firm found no discrepancies in its last report or any any of the previous years. The church’s claims are at odds with claims from the Epworth Preschool’s former director, who was fired within days of asking about the organization’s operating budget. A former board member tells 13abc the audit the church is referencing was conducted before alleged mismanagement of funds began.

The church released the statement Monday saying it wanted to “debunk rumors,” just days after it announced the Epworth Preschool (EPS) would remain closed for the remainder of the school year. That announcement followed the church’s firing of the preschool director, Jane Lyon, and subsequent teacher resignations. The church said it wouldn’t have the necessary teaching staff to reopen for the rest of the year but teachers tell 13abc they had met and agreed to a plan to finish out the rest of the year to ensure students’ education wouldn’t be interrupted.

Epworth Church said that it’s not possible that the church could have stolen funds from the preschool, as EPS is a not a separate entity that could operate independently of the church. The preschool cannot use funds at its own discretion.

“The EPS routinely operates at a deficit and the Church routinely provides additional funding to keep tuition rates affordable and competitive with other preschools,” the church said in a statement. “EPS is not a ‘money making’ operation, it is a ‘money losing’ operation that is gladly subsidized by the Church in order to underwrite and sustain its operation to make it affordable for families with preschool children. Furthermore, the Church offers partial and full scholarships to families who cannot afford it.”

At the time Lyon was fired, a former Epworth Preschool Board member told 13abc the school had been governed by a board for 40 years that was disbanded last August, not long after the church came under new leadership.

“We were informed that in those months of January through June that the church was changing the whole financial system,” said Lynee Saunders, a former preschool board member. “They had a new person doing accounting, banking and finance. And because of that, they could not give us, the board, the monthly statements that we had always gotten for every month for those 40 years.”

Saunders told 13abc Tuesday that the board was created intentionally to run the preschool separate from the church. She said the board paid rent to the church for the preschool and operates as the only reveneue-creating division of the church.

The church argued Monday that rumors and “intentional amplification of these false statements” regarding the organizations’ finances is what led to EPS closing for the remainder of the year. It said the church’s finance department is working to refund families for tuition and resolve payroll.

Parents of Epworth preschoolers felt they were left in the dark when the preschool doors were abruptly closed in early March when they went to drop off their kids for school and found the lights were off and the doors were locked. They said they were never alerted them the preschool would be closing and were left to piece information together themselves following the church’s firing of longtime director Lyon. Parents were left to find other arrangements when the organization announced it would temporarily closed and pushed back a reopening date on multiple occasions.

A group of parents banded together to demand answers about what happened and next steps, saying they trusted Lyon and wanted her to remain in the position. Many were skeptical of leadership over what they called poor communication. The Monday after Lyon’s firing, the interim director told parents in an email she was fired after “recent events that occurred that misaligned with our church values.”

Later that week, Lyon said she did not know why she was fired and claimed church leadership had slandered her and the school. She said since the church disbanded the governing board last August, the preschool hadn’t received any guidance to “correct” any aspect of the school, saying the communication over the last year had centered on accounting of parents’ tuition deposits missing from the records of the church. That day, Lyon released an email she had sent to the church the day before she was fired. In it, she claimed a copy of the preschool’s January 2023 financials showed the ending balance from December did not carry over into January and the preschool was short nearly $50,0000.

“I know legally you can take the preschool money, but I would like to know where the money goes,” Lyon asked in the email to the church. “It is not accounted for in the church’s operating budget? You have stated multiple times that the preschool is just another department of the church. Since that is the case, why is the preschool not listed and included in the church budget? Why are you hiding that you are emptying the balance of the preschool account and moving money without accounting for it in a transparent way? And lastly, why am I excluded from receiving the church budget?”

Epworth Church said Monday the lead pastor, Dr. Swisher, has had his professional and personal reputation attached over the recent developments calling them “mistruths.” The church continues to stand behind him and his work to build the church and benefit the greater community.

“Beyond the Church itself, he has been recognized by longtime leaders throughout Toledo, including other pastors of diverse denominations and many long time residents and leaders of our community elected and in the private sector. Not to mention his work against gun violence and other social issues in which he has helped lead our community,” Epworth said in its statement.

An online petition to remove Swisher from his role has accumulated more than 900 signatures.

The church said it intends to reinstate the preschool for the next school year.

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