City rescues private college with $4 million pledge

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Financially strapped LeMoyne-Owen College has collected about $4 million in pledges in recent months, allowing classes to begin as planned on Aug. 20.

The school needed up to $4 million by the end of June to pay debts and avoid losing its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Interim president Johnnie Watson said the city of Memphis pledged $3 million over three years.

The first $1 million was delivered June 29. School officials received other private pledges and also are hoping for another $3 million combined from Shelby County and the state, pending legislative approval.

Opponents argued that the city's pledge should be considered illegal because it gives public funds to a private institution, but a Memphis judge in June ruled against barring the city from giving the money.

In approving the pledge, the Memphis City Council said it is constitutional because it helps an institution that creates jobs and benefits the community.

The college has been in financial disarray for year and was in danger of closing. In the last decade, LeMoyne-Owen's debt has more than doubled - from nearly $5.3 million in 1997 to nearly $9.75 million in 2005 - while its enrollment dropped by more than 40 percent, to 589 this school year.

The SACS placed it on probation for the last two years. SACS officials will visit the campus in September before deciding on the school's status at their annual December meeting. School leaders believe the donations are enough to return LeMoyne-Owen to solid financial footing.

"There was never any question in my mind as to whether LeMoyne-Owen College would be open this year or not. ..." Watson said. "I've lived in this community over 60 years, and the community has been very responsive when needed.

The greater Memphis community has responded." While more than $4 million has been pledged to the school, only about $1.5 million is in hand now, Dugger said.

The rest is expected to be paid over the next few years. Besides the city, substantial pledges came from the United Negro College Fund, Cummins Inc., radio host Tom Joyner and the United Church of Christ.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)