With foreclosure looming Morris Brown College on the brink

For more than a decade, Morris Brown College has clung to life as it struggled academically and financially in the face of growing debt and dwindling support.

Now, one of the country's oldest black colleges, which at times boasted an enrollment of more than 3,000 student, is now down to about 50, and all but dead.

Morris Brown is facing foreclosure next month, after investors called $13 million worth of bonds tied to the college. An auction of assets, including the administration building, is scheduled for Sept. 4.

"This is heartbreaking and not only a sad day in the life of Morris Brown, but in black academia," said former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, a 1990 graduate of Morris Brown. "The school is needed now more than ever."

The school is planning to have a prayer vigil on Saturday, where they will 0ffer a plan to move the school forward.

While not going into specifics, Benjamin Harrison, a spokesman for the 6th District African Methodist Episcopal Church, which oversees the school, said officials will talk about reorganizing and restructuring as well as finances.

Calls to Morris Brown President Stanley J. Pritchett were not returned Wednesday, but Harrison acknowledged that while efforts are being made to find money to settle the debt the going is tough.

"There is the need to raise millions of dollars to counteract that deficit," Harrison said. "But if that money is not raised, the school is in jeopardy."

The bonds were issued by the Fulton County Development Authority in 1996, when Atlanta was flush with cash as the Summer Olympics loomed. As security for the bonds, Morris Brown pledged several pieces of property, including the school's administration building.

But Morris Brown, which is mired in debt and receives no federal funds because it is not accredited, is unable to repay the loans.

Morris Brown used the Fulton County Development Authority to finance the debt to get an ultra-low, tax exempt interest rate. The authority only acted as a conduit and taxpayers aren't on the hook, authority attorney Lewis Horne said.

Once one of the key pillars that comprised the Atlanta University Center, Morris Brown College was founded by former slaves to educate the sons and daughters of slaves.

Over the last two decades, while Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University have thrived, Morris Brown withered away.

In 2003, after years of severe financial mismanagement, fraud and debt, the school lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the federal funding and academic standing that comes with it. With the loss of accreditation, the United Negro College Fund, also withdrew its financial and other support.

The capper came in 2006, when Dolores Cross, who served as president from 1998 to 2002, pleaded guilty to embezzling federal funds by applying for money on behalf of students without their knowledge or consent. Cross used the money to pay operating costs. She was ordered to pay $13,942 in restitution to the government and was sentenced to five years of probation but avoided prison time.

Former financial aid director Parvesh Singh also pleaded guilty.

Preston W. Williams, chairman of the board of trustees of Morris Brown, is calling for a "National Day of Prayer," and will issue what is being called the school's official response to the notice of foreclosure at an on-campus event at 1 p.m. Saturday John H. Lewis Health & Physical Education Complex.

He is calling on everyone associated with Morris Brown to pray for the school -- and donate money -- to stave off the foreclosure.

"The mood around here is realistic," Harrison said. "Although we are praying to God that he will assist us, the school does have its feet on the ground and is looking at this seriously and realistically. We know that tangible, concrete plans have to be established for Morris Brown to survive, go forward and rebuild." Because the school is not accredited by SACS, students are not eligible for federal financial aid.

The school is in the process of trying to get accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

Last July, the AJC reported that the school owed more than $30 million to several creditors. At the same time, the school raised $500,000 to settle a $9.9 million debt to the U.S. Department of Education.

Staff writers Johnny Edwards and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.