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Sojourner-Douglass College closes satellite campus in Edgewater

Baltimore-based Sojourner-Douglass College, beset in recent months by financial troubles after losing its accreditation, has closed its satellite campus in Anne Arundel County.

College President Charles Simmons said Friday that all but one employee at the Edgewater campus has been let go. Some students have transferred to other area colleges, he said, while others now attend Sojourner-Douglass' Baltimore campus.

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Simmons said the campus closed Monday, amid a lawsuit by the property owner over the school's failure to pay rent.

But even with the shutdown and other challenges — the loss of accreditation and an inability to pay some staff in recent weeks — Simmons said the college can rebound.

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"We've had some cash-flow problems, which is why we fell behind in the rent and why we fell behind with pay of some staff," said Simmons.

Simmons said he hopes to revive the satellite facility, possibly at another location in Anne Arundel.

"We're still discussing the matters with the" landlord, Simmons said. "If we can't resolve the matter with the landlord in the appropriate amount of time, we'll find a smaller, less costly facility until we build the program back up.

"We're not going to change our mission."

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Sojourner-Douglass, which was founded in 1972 as the Homestead-Montebello Center of Antioch College, serves primarily nontraditional students. The average age of a student is 38. The school receives most of its funding through federal Pell Grants.

Charlestine Fairley, who resigned Jan. 30 as dean at the Anne Arundel campus, said staff from Anne Arundel Community College and University of Maryland University College have worked with some Sojourner-Douglass students to transfer to those schools. She said other students transferred to Bowie State University.

Simmons said the school now has 750 students, down from about 1,300 before details of its financial problems were made public.

The Edgewater closure is the latest in a series of setbacks for Sojourner-Douglass. Simmons said the latest wave of problems came after the November decision by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to withdraw the school's accreditation. The commission cited inadequate financial resources.

The U.S. Department of Education placed the college on a list for increased monitoring, Simmons said, and delayed the school's funding requests.

Simmons said some Sojourner-Douglass College employees have received just one paycheck this year — for the pay period ending Jan. 9. Many missed paychecks due Jan. 23 and Friday.

Simmons said he wasn't sure, overall, how many people had not been paid.

Doris Phillips of Baltimore said she has worked at Sojourner-Douglass for about three years. She said she has received only one paycheck this year.

"I don't know what to do now. Everything is up in the air," said Phillips, who declined to describe her position. "I have been looking for and applying for jobs, and I haven't had any luck yet. I have no idea what I am going to do."

Simmons said discussions with the Department of Education have resolved some of the issues that held up grants, and he expects an infusion of money in the coming week that will enable the school to get caught up paying employees by next Friday.

"That process has been resolved. We will rectify that next week," Simmons said.

A Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on Sojourner-Douglas' financial circumstances or the status of Pell Grants. He said the department had not been officially notified by the college of any closures and that Sojourner-Douglass remains eligible to receive funding.

Sojourner-Douglass has appealed the loss of accreditation and school officials attended a hearing Monday to request it be reinstated.

Middle States Commission President Elizabeth Sibolski said the panel will make a decision regarding the appeal within 15 business days. She said Friday she was unaware the Anne Arundel campus had been closed.

She declined to say if the closure would affect the deliberations.

"We've already terminated their accreditation," Sibolski said. "Barring anything that would turn that decision around, there's not much more we can do with it."

Simmons said he was optimistic about the appeal process.

"I think we are going to prevail," Simmons said. He said the school would consider its legal options if the appeal were denied.

"There are other institutions in the Middle Atlantic region with debts far greater than ours, and their accreditations [were] reaffirmed," he said.

The Edgewater campus building is owned by Annapolis-based SDC 214 LLC. An attorney for the firm said last month that Sojourner-Douglass was behind about $58,000 in rent.

"We have reached out to Dr. Simmons and his chief financial officer on multiple occasions, and we basically get no response," attorney Tarrant Lomax said. "The phone lines are open. Our minds are open. But in the meantime, my client will proceed to protect his rights."

Simmons said college officials had not spoken to the landlord's attorney "in a couple of weeks," but said they intend to.

The Anne Arundel campus houses a memorial dedicated to the late Coretta Scott King, civil rights leader and widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Simmons said the school is considering moving the memorial to its Baltimore campus.

Jennie C. Hunter-Cevera, acting secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, said the commission "is aware of ongoing challenges at Sojourner-Douglas College."

"We will continue to monitor the resolutions of the issues," she said.

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