Bel Heights Church preschool

A banner and signs to teachers and the preschool hang on the fence Saturday at Belmont Heights United Methodist Church.

Officials at Belmont Heights United Methodist Church announced Thursday the longstanding preschool there would close permanently, and terminated all 15 staff members.

Some parents raised objections, going so far as accusing church leadership of corruption and misuse of money that should have kept the preschool open. Senior Pastor Lisa Fitzpatrick countered that church leadership looked desperately for alternatives, but ultimately decided late Tuesday, May 26, that the church could no longer afford to keep the school in hopes of reopening after the coronavirus pandemic.

Belmont Heights Church Preschool has been in operation for almost 70 years. Enrollment estimates this year ranged from 80 to more than 100 children before the school shut down in mid-March. School director Christy-Ann Soriano did not return requests for an interview or comment, and the school's website has been disabled, with the notice of closure over the home page.

The closure notice sent to parents on Thursday was three paragraphs — what parent Valerie Vega Jaffe called abrupt and unexpected.

"We have participated in all the fundraisers and given our time and support whenever asked," Jaffe wrote in an email. "Which begs the question: If the church needed funds to keep the school going, why didn't they just ask? The school is private tuition, not in the public school system funded by the state. How much was needed to keep it running? Why wasn't there a Go Fund Me option? Why wasn't a PPP loan applied for? Or was there?"

Fitzpatrick said some parents seemed to believe the preschool was an entity on its own, supporting itself. That is not the case, she said.

"The preschool is a ministry supported by the church, and it has been for decades," Fitzpatrick said. "The church pays for administration, upkeep and much more. This was a heart-wrenching decision, but we needed to do what was best for the staff."

Fitzpatrick said that the church has been paying all 15 staff members full salary since the school closed, and ultimately will pay them 13 weeks of salary, plus a severance package. She declined to go into detail about dollar amounts, either for the salaries or for the preschool's operating budget.

"When the shutdowns began (in March), lots of parents continued to contribute money to keep the teachers paid through the closure period," Kristin Snelling, another parent, said. "If we had known that there was a chance at all that the school might close, we would have organized additional fundraising for the school. 

"The sweeping decision made by the board to close came as a complete shock to all parents and teachers."

After the brief closure notice Thursday, Fitzpatrick followed up with an 830-word response to questions from parents. In it, she promises refunds for any pre-paid fees or unused tuition. It also says the preschool facility had been kept ready to open for the last two months, but that was no longer sustainable. A plan to recover students' work and possessions without violating social distancing requirements is in process now.

The typical attendance at Sunday service (when live services were allowed) is about 60 people — fewer than the preschool enrollment — with between 300 and 400 people affiliated with the church in different ways. Belmont Heights United Methodist has a fairly large campus at 317 Termino Ave. Fitzpatrick said the church has planned well in the last few years, and had a good reserve fund, but it was dwindling.

She also said the angry reaction to the preschool closure was expected.

"We knew the announcement was abrupt, brief and specific," Fitzpatrick said. "That's the way to convey difficult news… We're all grieving now. When people are grieving, it can come out as fear and anger. I'm aware of that and prepared for it.

"We just want to move on with grace, compassion and love, to let God's love flow."

Fitzpatrick has been senior pastor at Belmont Heights United Methodist Church for less than a year, taking over after the controversial and brief tenure of Rev. Darren Cowdrey, who came to Belmont Heights on July 1, 2019, from Palisades United Methodist in Capistrano Beach, where he had been accused of sexual harassment. The claims, and more issues at the Palisades preschool (including a wrongful termination lawsuit by the fired preschool director), became the subject of several major news stories, including in the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Grunion Gazette.

While Cowdrey was not a defendant in the lawsuit, he figured prominently in the case. When the OC Weekly wrote about the lawsuit, Cowdrey's qualifications were questioned by the Belmont Heights congregation and preschool parents (where the Capistrano Beach sexual harassment was alleged to have occurred). 

Cowdrey took a vacation while the issue was debated, then a leave of absence. Fitzpatrick took over in September 2019. 

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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