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Harpootlian

Eight professors from the American College of the Building Arts have sued the school, its president and the head of its finance department, claiming the college owes them hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages.

The civil lawsuit was filed April 12 in Charleston County by William Bates, Jay Close, Frank Genello, Michael Letendard, David Payne, Mike Plate, Bruno Sutter and Darryl Weiser.

The plaintiffs allege that the school, President Colby Broadwater and Robert Morrison, director of operations and finance, "failed to honor employment contracts" and "wrongfully withheld substantial payments of wages during the several years of the plaintiffs' employment." The total unpaid wages "exceed several hundred thousands of dollars," according to the lawsuit.

The private liberal arts college, which opened in 2005, educates and trains artisans in the traditional building arts and encourages historic preservation.

Broadwater said Tuesday that six of the eight plaintiffs are still employed at the school. He said he couldn't comment on the allegations because the matter is in litigation. But in a prepared statement, Broadwater said, "I'm sorry that a minority of the faculty felt that litigation was appropriate."

Mike Plate, one of the plaintiffs who remains on the website as an adjunct faculty member, said he left his position several weeks ago when it became clear to him that the college had no resources to pay him for future work. Plate said he started teaching plastering at the school this past August. He claimed the college owes him several thousand dollars, but he wouldn't specify the amount.

During the months he worked at the school, he said, he was paid only occasionally. School officials often promised instructors would be paid soon, he said. "They kept throwing us a carrot," he said. "They said, 'hang in there.' "

One of the plaintiffs is not listed as a faculty member or adjunct faculty member on the school's website.

Broadwater said the school faces some financial challenges, but added that most higher education institutions face similar challenges in the current economic downturn.

He also said he has had informal discussions with College of Charleston President George Benson about ways in which the two schools might collaborate to create a center of excellence for preservation in Charleston.

"We bounced ideas around," Broadwater said. But there were no formal offers made for the College of Charleston to take over the building arts college, he said.

Benson told members of the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees earlier this month that the college was making plans to fold the building arts school's program into the college if that became necessary.

The College of Charleston's Faculty Senate recently approved a proposal for a curriculum and new major in historic preservation and the building arts, and the college's Board of Trustees agreed to the proposal at its meeting earlier this month. That plan would require approval from the state's Commission on Higher Education to move forward.

Broadwater and other school leaders at the building arts college have said their financial situation will likely improve after they earn pre-accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education. Students are not eligible for federal grant and loan programs until the school earns pre-accreditation status.

He said a team from the accrediting agency was at the school last week. Members of the team told him that he needed to develop an assessment plan and submit that to the agency in the next couple of months, he said. The school's application should come before the accrediting agency's review board in September, he said.

The school has great students and a supportive community, he said. And he thinks it will continue as an independent institution.