Hilliard residents Jesse and Melissa Chavis thought they had planned ahead when enrolling their daughter, Maya, in the Little Explorer Preschool next fall.

But they learned their effort in vetting preschools was for naught when they opened their mail May 3.

"We both read it twice and thought is it really what it says it is?" Melissa Chavis said.

The April 29 letter from Beth Simon, interim director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, advised the parents and guardians who had enrolled children for 2018-19 that the city-run preschool at the Hilliard Community Center, 3800 Veterans Memorial Drive, is closing.

"It was a complete and total surprise," said Chavis, who paid a $60 deposit in February to enroll Maya.

The letter Simon sent advises recipients to "look for a check in the mail from the city in the coming weeks refunding your deposit."

Chavis said a refund is the least of her family's worries because now they must find another preschool in short order.

"We know parents should have a preschool picked out by February like we did, so now we are so late in the game (to find a new one)," she said.

Chavis said she and her family went to a preschool fair this past winter to learn about preschools and, after visiting two others, picked Hilliard's program because of the smaller ratio of staff members to children and the staff members themselves.

Teacher Dawn Stoll "was the deciding factor," she said.

Lisa Penzone, whose 5-year-old son, Calvin, was in the final class of Little Explorer graduates May 8, said she and her husband, Brian, also chose the school because of Stoll.

"She crafted such great programs for the kids every day," Penzone said.

This was the first year for the Little Explorer class at the preschool, Simon said, though the preschool had operated as the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Preschool since 2010 and as a play school since sometime in the 1980s.

Twenty-two students were enrolled and 21 had enrolled for next year, she said. Their deposits or registration fees will be refunded.

In addition, the two teachers at the preschool, including Stoll, will not lose their jobs, Simon said.

In last year's city budget, the line item for community-center programs was $115,000, according to David Delande, the city's finance director. That total includes the preschool and all other programs at the community center.

The decision to close the school was made as part of the department's continual review of its public programs, Simon said.

Simon said the department has made "great strides" to provide a variety of programs and events and in order to do so "had to allocate more space in the community center to accommodate (the staff) needed to provide additional recreational opportunities."

As a result, space is limited and "we have determined (it) affects our ability to create a learning environment necessary to operate a safe and rewarding preschool program."

Simon shared the same sentiments in the April 29 letter sent to parents and guardians who had enrolled for next year.

But according to an April 27 email between Simon and law director Tracy Bradford that the city supplied upon a public-records request, Simon originally had indicated in a draft letter that the preschool was closing because the city did "not have the proper setup to hold a preschool."

Hilliard was working with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and although the preschool was compliant with all requirements, leaders decided to "re-evaluate the capabilities of our current facility and our mission," the draft letter said.

According to the email, Bradford's revision was the April 29 letter mailed to enrollees.

Simon has been interim director of the recreation and parks department since early March. Heather Ernst, the former deputy director of the recreation and parks department was indicted March 1 on eight felony counts, including theft in office, related to the reported theft of more than $540,000 from the city's two pool facilities dating back to 2013; one week later Mayor Don Schonhardt fired department director Steve Mazer.

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