Laurel Prep Academy, an institution operated out of the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, is no longer considered an official school by the Maryland Department of Education, a move the club's top official says has no bearing on the future operations of the academy's basketball program.
The academy had been registered within the state as a non-accredited church-exempt school, but that status was withdrawn by the state Monday, July 7 after the school's affiliated church, Odenton-based Liberty International Ministries, withdrew support for the institution.
According to department spokesman Bill Reinhard, the church's withdrawal terminates the school's recognition as an official school within the state.
Club President Nancy Lilly said the designation is moot because the academy, which opened in 2013, has never operated as an official school and is instead an after-school travel basketball program operated by the club.
“The name is deceiving,” Lilly said.
Lilly said the program is an extension of the club’s athletic offerings and is free to participants. Lilly said the participants are either full-time students at other area high schools, dropouts working toward a GED or high school graduates under the age of 20 not yet enrolled in college.
All the participants play on the academy’s basketball team. Lilly said the program gives participants academic support and exposure on the court.
The academy website, which is linked to the club's website, states: “the primary goal is college prep, college placement and heightened recruitment exposure by playing on Laurel Prep Academy’s basketball team.”
Lilly said the state designation will not affect the status of the program, which she called "a good program."
Lilly said the academy does use club funds -- which come from state-issued grants -- but because it is a club-sanctioned program, nothing improper is occurring.
She said the academy was registered with the state as a church-exempt school because it had designs on becoming a full-functioning school in partnership with Liberty International Ministries. She said the school “never really took off,” and that the club decided to make the academy an after-school program.
The Rev. Abel Igbenoba, a pastor at Liberty International, said the church was renting space in the club last year when then-club President Levet Brown, who is also the head coach of Laurel Prep’s basketball team, approached him about forming a traditional school. Igbenoba said he received approval from his board of directors to start the school, which included filing with the State Department of Education as a church-exempt school, but that he backed out after realizing it wasn’t possible given the resources.
“I came in naive,” Igbenoba said.
Igbenoba said no students officially enrolled in the church-exempt school recognized by the state, and that the church received no financial gain from the endeavor. Igbenoba called the venture a mistake.
A church-exempt school allows so-called “bona fide churches," as described by state law, to register with the state without being subject to approval or oversight by the State Board of Education. These schools are not required to meet any state-level educational standards.
Reinhard said an application to become a church-exempt school within the state requires only authorization from a church that the school is, in fact, a school. He said once that support is withdrawn, the state withdraws the designation.
After seeing a report in June on the club by NBC 4, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe sent a a letter to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, asking the comptroller to investigate the club.
Specifically, Moe asked the comptroller’s office in his letter to investigate “alleged misuse of club funds, corruption, tax fraud, questionable practices, Laurel zoning and code violations, and inadequate building maintenance to include public restrooms.”
A spokesman from the comptroller’s office said they have received the letter and are working on a response.
Lilly said the academy does use club funds, which come from state-issued grants, but because it is a club-sanctioned program, nothing improper is occurring.
Moe said that, in addition to potential statewide issues, the club has a number of outstanding zoning and code compliance issues related to crumbling infrastructure, inadequate fire safety measures.
An additional concern are claims that people are living in an annex off Phelps Center, the club's main building. Lilly said, when she arrived in April, she discovered five Laurel Prep Academy participants and one couple living in the club annex. She said she reported the tenants to city officials, who evicted the tenants because the club did not have permits for residency.
Lilly said she has been working closely with the city on rectifying long-standing compliance issues since taking over in April. Lilly may not be able to see the changes through, however, because the club recently elected a new board of directors that does not include Lilly because she did not run for office.
The Laurel City Council has also reached out to the club, and Lilly and council members are planning to meet on Thursday, July 10.
This is not the first time the city has taken an interest in the club. Last year, Moe, at the request of club officials, established a city task force made up of community members with diverse business and operations experience to evaluate the club's operations and finances. The task force presented a series of recommendations last September to the struggling club, which is not affiliated with the national Boys and Girls Club organization.
Task force Chairman Rick Wilson said the recent concerns have caught the attention of the task force.
“The club was not being forthcoming with all the information, and obviously there was information that wasn’t being provided,” Wilson said. “There were some opportunities missed there.”
Moe said the club, while not officially affiliated with the city, is a key community organization.
“My door is not shut, and I will help where I can,” he said. “We need each other, but it has to be a two-way street.”