Sunday, December 21, 2008
Final bell may have tolled at Morris Brown
After enduring the conviction of its president on charges of embezzlement Morris Brown College has managed to endure. It has kept going despite losing its accreditation and seeing its enrollment, once near 3,000, plummet to 56 students.
Now, Morris Brown faces additional challenges to pay $1.5 million in critical bills may not make it.
Stanley Pritchett, acting president of the 127 year-old school said Saturday, they lack money to pay faculty and staff salaries, utilities and other operating expenses.
The school’s financial troubles intensified last week, when the city of Atlanta shut off water service to the campus.
The city said Morris Brown owes about $380,000 in water bills, some dating to 2004. When the school fell behind on a payment plan to reduce the debt, the city cut off the water — and, perhaps, Morris Brown’s future.
The campus simply cannot reopen unless the water comes back on, Pritchett said. “You’ve got to have basic services.”
School officials are scheduled to meet with bankers on Monday, hoping to secure a short-term loan, said Rhonda Copenny, a Morris Brown trustee. The college continues to work on a long-term restructuring of its $32 million debt.
Without “bridge financing,” Copenny said, the school is no more than three weeks away from closing permanently.
Even with a short-term cash infusion, the college faces tough obstacles, court records indicate. Contractors have filed several liens over unpaid bills.
A real-estate broker hired to arrange commercial development on campus has put filed a $230,000 lien. A plumbing company that had already filed a $116,000 lien escalated the case by suing the school Dec. 17.
The city, too, filed liens to prevent Morris Brown from selling property before making good on its water bills.
On Dec. 12, the last day of the fall semester, city officials told the school to pay the full $380,000 immediately or they would terminate water service, Pritchett said. City workers turned off the spigots Dec. 15.
Pritchett said he has appealed for leniency from Mayor Shirley Franklin and has talked with two of her aides, “but as of this date, I have not been able to get any kind of flexibility in resolving it.”
City officials say they gave Morris Brown plenty of chances. Once a customer defaults on a payment plan, though, the account becomes due in full.
“The city doesn’t renegotiate,” said Janet Ward, a spokeswoman for the Watershed Management Department.
Franklin’s spokeswoman, Beverly Isom, said, “This problem has been apparent for some time. I don’t think it’s because they don’t have water that Morris Brown has financial problems.”
This potentially fatal blow comes as Morris Brown has begun something of a rebirth. Last spring, the General Assembly allowed the school to begin accepting students who receive the state’s HOPE scholarship. Enrollment this fall more than doubled to about 240.
“The institution has been a major part of the landscape of this community,” Pritchett said, “and it certainly deserves to remain a viable part of the community.”