Right before winter break, Liz Fahey learned that her son’s private middle school was closing immediately. Since Fahey served as a teacher’s aide at the school, she also lost her job that day.
It wasn’t the kind of news she wanted just a few days before Christmas.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Fahey on Dec. 26. “We gave and invested so much in that school.”
First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee launched the middle school program where Fahey’s son was enrolled over five years ago.
It joined the already successful elementary and daycare programs at the church, and Fahey said she was “very optimistic” about the middle school’s continued success last year.
The school cited low enrollment numbers and “other factors” in a letter to parents about the school’s abrupt closure.
But Fahey and two others involved at First United Methodist reported a change in how the school was run after pastor Jose Nieves took over the parish in July.
“It was a totally different atmosphere, both at the church and the school,” said Deanna Clover, whose son attended the elementary school until September.
Clover said the rapid turnover of principals and teachers in recent months worried her, as did what felt like a general lack of direction from the pastor.
Clover thinks the instability was causing students like her son to fall behind.
Concerns about Pastor Nieves were shared by longtime parishioner Jenny Patterson. Her son was also once enrolled at the school and Patterson recently served on the church’s finance committee.
Pastor Nieves emailed a brief statement about the school closure to the Osceola News-Gazette Dec. 27.
“We reached out to communicate directly with each of the families involved, and we are keeping all the children and everyone affected by these circumstances in our prayers,” Nieves wrote.
According to Patterson, the church keeps separate bank accounts and committees for the early education program, the schools and the church.
“The new pastor wants to treat it all as one,” Patterson said.
Patterson said Nieves discussed accepting more scholarship students from the district in order to increase state funding.
“But our schools were always about a mission, not the money,” Patterson said. “We weren’t opposed to accepting more scholarship students, we just didn’t want to do it for purely financial reasons.”
Finally, a couple months ago, Patterson stepped away from the church’s finance committee. She was concerned about how money was being handled at First United Methodist, adding that staying on “felt like a liability risk.”
Many questions loom for parents with students still enrolled in the church’s elementary school and daycare programs. Fahey said recent events have made her consider unenrolling her third grade daughter – just in case.
She said parents are looking at forming a home school co-op until the end of the year for the 16 students displaced when the middle school closed.