School sells McLeod

Mimi Conlon, a third-year architecture stone-carving major at the American College of the Building Arts, claws the surface of a piece of Indiana limestone at the Old City Jail in Charleston.

In a bid to shore up its finances, the American College of the Building Arts has sold McLeod Plantation back to the Historic Charleston Foundation and scrapped controversial plans to use the property for a college campus.

"The college has nothing more to do with McLeod Plantation," said college President Colby M. Broadwater.

"It would have and could have been a wonderful place to do what we do," he said. "However, my mission right now is to get the college on sound financial footing."

The college has been seeking pre-accreditation, which would make students eligible for federal grant and loan programs and likely boost enrollment, but its financial condition raised concerns with an accrediting agency that visited in October.

When Broadwater was hired last year, the college's financial health was such that teacher salaries weren't being fully paid.

"They missed paying some people last summer," said Jeff Martineau, vice president for accreditation at the American Academy for Liberal Education. "They have to get that sort of thing squared away."

Broadwater said this week that the $150,000 that was owed to teachers in 2008 has been substantially reduced.

The college sought a loan from the city of Charleston in August, and Mayor Joe Riley warned at the time that if the college's financial problems were not addressed "it could mean the end of the college."

City Council approved a $734,500 loan to the college in September, a month before the accrediting agency's visit. The city required that the college sell McLeod Plantation back to the Historic Charleston Foundation in order to raise collateral for the loan, but the plan called for the college to lease McLeod and continue to use the property.

Instead, the college decided to keep the $850,000 from the sale, repay the city loan, and leave the plantation in the hands of Historic Charleston.

The plan to use the historic plantation as a campus has always been controversial, and opposed at every step by the group Friends of McLeod, which is still pursuing a lawsuit over the city's rezoning of the property in 2004 to allow the school use.

Carol Jacobsen, a Friends of McLeod board member, was breathless when she learned Friday of the college's decision to leave McLeod.

"What a grand surprise," she said.

Historic Charleston Foundation Executive Director Katharine Robinson said the foundation will probably spend several months mulling over what to do next with McLeod Plantation.

Broadwater said that in addition to leaving McLeod Plantation, the college also may reduce the amount of space it leases from the Noisette development in North Charleston. The college also owns the historic Old City Jail in Charleston, and has been focusing activities there.

The decisions all come at a time when the 4-year-old college is seeking pre-accreditation, which college officials have repeatedly said would increase enrollment and help get it on solid financial ground. The American College of the Building Arts had hoped for pre-accreditation at the end of last year, but an accrediting agency had concerns about the college's finances and its academic program.

Martineau, of the American Academy for Liberal Education, said the college had "bits and pieces" of a liberal arts program, "but it isn't there yet." He said that if the academic program had satisfied the accreditors, finances would still have been an issue.

The agency suggested that the college take some time to address the issues raised, and seek a vote on accreditation perhaps this year.

"One of their challenges is, they say they want to be a liberal arts college, but they don't look like one," he said. "They can't just be producing kids that are wonderful at plaster and those kinds of things."

The college trains artisans in traditional building arts, such as metalwork and timber framing, within a curriculum that includes business, economics, languages and other traditional college courses. Annual tuition is $19,872, though many students get scholarships that reduce the cost.

"These kids get a good education for their minds, while we teach them to use their hands," Broadwater said.

Broadwater said he hopes to have the American Academy for Liberal Education revisit the college in March or April.

"If I didn't think we could be ready, I wouldn't have asked them back," Broadwater said. "Obviously, we were disappointed we did not go before the (accrediting agency's) board in December."

The college is licensed by South Carolina to offer a two-year associate's degree and a four-year bachelor's degree, and is preparing to graduate its first class of seven students this spring.

"The situation with the American College of the Building Arts is, we've been working with them on a plan to pursue and achieve accreditation," said Renea Eshelman, head of licensure at the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. "They are pursuing that with great zeal."

"It's kind of a Catch-22, where they can't increase enrollment without access to title 4 (federal grants and loans), and they can't get accredited without better finances," she said. "I think that they will be able to bring it along to where it needs to be."

Pierre Manigault, chairman of the college's board of trustees, said they anticipated that the accrediting agency could have questions about the college's finances, but he said Broadwater has done "tremendous things" to quickly improve the college's condition since he was hired less than a year ago.

Manigault also is chairman of the board of Evening Post Publishing Co., parent company of Charleston.net and The Post and Courier.