Butler Business School closes, students stunned
Updated 11:05 pm, Monday, December 31, 2012
BRIDGEPORT -- Butler Business School and two sister schools in the state have closed without warning, leaving as many as 1,200 students saddled with more than $20,000 in loans each and without the diploma that would enable them to start paying off their debt.
State officials said Monday they were notified by Paul Kelly, finance director at the Sawyer School, Butler's parent organization, of the abrupt closure, which stunned the student body, some of whom were close to graduation.
The closing also occurred in apparent violation of state law, which requires schools that close to notify the state Office of Higher Education at least 60 days prior to closing. The notification occurred Sunday.
"I can't stop crying over this," said Melinda Rankine, a student from Bridgeport who has been at the North Avenue school 11 months and was set to start a 180-hour externship in January, the final step before graduation. "What do I do now? I'm sick to my stomach."
"I feel we were robbed," added Simone Davis, a student from Stratford. "Everybody went there to get an education. We took out student loans. That stuff is on my credit."
The school, which began in 1900 as an independent secretarial school, is now associated with Sawyer Schools in Hamden and Hartford. Those two campuses also closed over the weekend without warning. Combined, the three branches had some 1,200 students.
Sawyer is headquartered in Pawtucket, R.I., and also has one or more schools there. Calls to company headquarters went unanswered Monday.
"We are trying to reach out to students. We had no indication they were in trouble," said Connie Fraser, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of Higher Education, which has regulatory oversight for the operation of these and other non-degree-granting private occupational schools in Connecticut.
There are 65 private, non-degree-granting private occupational schools in the state. Unlike colleges, they award certificates, not degrees, and tend to have much higher dropout rates and student loan default rates.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Monday he believes a congressional investigation may be in order.
"I am particularly concerned because federal funds almost certainly were involved," said Blumenthal, who was the state's attorney general before going to Washington in 2010. He said Butler Business School "may be Exhibit A" for the reopening of a study just completed by the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on questionable practices by for-profit companies.
Blumenthal said he was troubled by the school's silence on how it would address student needs to both graduate and pay back student loans. He wants written assurances that students enrolled in these programs will be reimbursed or provided with a comparable program in another readily accessible facility.
Orlanda Austin Strong, another Butler student, may be stuck with $24,000 in student debt.
According to Strong, classes ended Dec. 10 and were set to resume Thursday. She and others started hearing rumors last week that the school was closing, so Strong decided to go to the school Saturday and found a note on the door saying the school was closing.
Inside the school, Strong said she saw about 15 staff members, including director Lucy Baker, packing their things.
"They wouldn't let us in. They didn't tell us nothing. They were like, `You guys are on your own until you get a letter,' " said Strong, who has attended the school for nearly a year in hopes of becoming a medical assistant.
"We, as students, want to know what will happen to us as far as graduating and getting our certificates," Strong said.
Sue Waters, an instructor at Butler for the past seven years, said she is as stunned as her students.
"I've been a wreck. I don't have a job. I don't have a job and I carry the medical benefits for my family," Waters said.
Waters said she called the school Friday to request room assignments and instead was greeted with, "You don't know? They closed the school."
Waters said she is convinced Baker did not know about the closing until recently. The week before the school closed for winter break, registrations for January classes were still being taken.
Davis, the student from Stratford, said she already checked with Porter and Chester, another local business school, and learned the school will not accept any of her credits.
"So I wasted my time and everything," said an exasperated Davis.
Davis said she chose Butler because a friend went there and graduated. Plus, she knew the school had a long history that began in 1900 as Brown's Business College. The school was acquired by the Butler family in 1917.
In 1983, the school moved to its present site near the Fairfield-Bridgeport border at 2710 North Ave. At some point, the school was sold to Michael J. and Paul T. Kelly, doing business as Academic Enterprises, based in Rhode Island.
The school offered three training programs in medical assistant/secretary, office information systems and phlebotomy technician. There was no answer at Paul Kelly's home in Mansfield, Mass., and his message machine was full.
Michelle Brown, another student, said she struggled to attend school full-time and work full-time to try and make a better life for herself. She learned about Butler's closure on Facebook.
"I wasn't doing this for me. I was doing it for my kids. I was going to graduate in April," she said. "I'm shocked."
In his letter to the state, Kelly said classes scheduled to begin in January have been canceled, and students, faculty and staff have been notified.
That notification, apparently, was a small, misspelled notice taped to the inside front door of the school that reads, "Effective December 28, 2012, Butler Business School Classes will be cancelled indefinately."
"I have requested assistance from each of the school's landlords to provide for an orderly transition of student records. In the coming week, I hope to work with you to facilitate this process, and any other options that may be available to help our students continue their education at another institution," wrote Kelly in his email to the state.
Fraser said her office has been in touch with some students and has set up a telephone number for others to contact them at 1-800-842-0229. There is also a website being established at www.ctohe.org, where affected students can register.
Officials from Fraser's office have attempted to reach school officials, and are working with the Office of the Attorney General to secure student records and financial files.
The Office of Higher Education is meeting with representatives from other schools to create "teach out" opportunities to provide a means for students to complete their studies. The Office of Higher Education is also in communication with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs the U.S. Department of Education, and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
"Our priority is to see that students have an opportunity to complete their studies," said Jane A. Ciarleglio, executive director of the Office of Higher Education.