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WCPSS ends partnership with Saint Augustine’s University, alumni groups call for resignation

A flowerbed and stone structures making up Saint Augustine University's entrance.
Saint Augustine’s University
Accreditation and financial problems at Saint Augustine’s University have led to the dissolution of a 10-year partnership with the Wake County Public School System.

The Wake County Board of Education has voted to end a partnership with Saint Augustine’s University.

The agreement allowed students attending the WCPSS Wake Young Leadership Academies to take college-level courses at Saint Augustine’s University. Students could take up to two years of tuition-free credits that could count toward a bachelor’s degree.

The Wake County school board cited the university’s accreditation issues in ending the decade-long relationship.

Several students and parents from Wake Young Leadership Academies attended the board meeting Tuesday night.

One of the speakers was April Miller, a mother of a senior that attends Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

“I just learned today that due to Saint Augustine’s ongoing issues, my senior will now end her high school career the way she started it: in online classes,” Miller said.

The early college agreement between WCPSS and Saint Augustine’s University will officially end in July, after a 90-day notice period.

Superintendent Robert Taylor said classes will then be temporarily moved to Wake Tech, a two-year community college, as the school board looks for a permanent four-year partner.

“Recent struggles at (Saint Augustine’s) University have placed severe strains on our ability to maintain this partnership and not put the college academic components of our students at risk,” Taylor said at the meeting.

Ongoing Issues at SAU

In December, the SAU’s accrediting body announced it was removing the university from its membership. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges said the university failed several of its requirements, most involving financial resources and processes.

The private HBCU has had several financial issues, including an $8 million tax lien from the IRS and failure to meet payroll for its employees.

Saint Augustine’s University appealed SASCOC's decision last month and lost.

The university is currently disputing SASCOC’s decision again, this time through an accreditation arbitration process that could last up to 90 days. SAU remains accredited through the process, according to university officials.

If the commission’s decision is upheld, Saint Augustine’s access to federal funding will be at risk. Universities must be accredited for students to receive federal financial aid, like Pell Grants.

Saint Augustine’s financial struggles have also led several alumni groups to release a joint resolution against the university’s Board of Trustees.

The SAVE SAU signatories include the SAU National Alumni Association, Parents of Students Association, Students and Alumni United, Oakwood Falcon Foundation, Falcons Unite and Falcon Sixth Man Foundation.

They claim the Board of Trustees has “breached its fiduciary duty to the university” and that has led to years of mismanagement of the university’s resources. John Larkins, SAVE SAU committee organizer, said this is evident in the university’s fiscal year 2021 audit.

“The FY21 audit also states that the Board’s overall governance and oversight of the university were severely absent,” Larkins said in a press release. “Alumni have expressed major concerns about the board’s governance of SAU for the past five years. The National Alumni Association outlined a list of significant concerns and approved a vote of no confidence in the SAU Board of Trustees in 2020.”

The alumni groups are calling for the university’s trustees to resign, and for the board to be reconstructed.

“Those who created the issues, whether through intent or neglect, cannot be trusted to fix the problems,” said Devaron Benjamin, a 1996 Saint Augustine’s alum, in the press release. “Our hope is that the board of trustees will care enough about this incredible institution to step down given their past and current performance. They need to give future generations a chance to love it like we do.”

The school’s Board of Trustees released a statement Wednesday morning responding to the resolution. The board said that it “remains focused on preserving SAU's accreditation and stabilizing the University's finances under its new leadership.”

“The University's accreditation and financial stability are critical to its ability to continue as a premier HBCU in North Carolina,” the statement read. “Our focus remains on fulfilling Saint Augustine's University's mission and supporting students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

Saint Augustine’s Board of Trustees is also facing legal action from the university’s former leadership. Christine McPhail was fired last year amid the university’s accreditation issues. She had been the university’s president since 2021.

McPhail said she was terminated as a result of gender discrimination and retaliation, which the university denies.

Saint Augustine's Interim President Marcus Burgess released a statement Wednesday afternoon, stating that the university was "thankful and appreciative" of its partnership with the Wake County Public School System.

"While we are disappointed because we will miss the Wake Young Men's Leadership Academy (WYMLA) and Wake Young Women's Leadership Academy (WYWLA) students on our campus, we also understand the gravity of the moment," Burgess said. "We fully support the decision of WCPSS Superintendent Dr. Robert Taylor and the WCPSS Board of Education. We look forward to the day we can invite the early college students back to SAU with open arms."

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.