Oakbridge, Newport Business schools close suddenly
Oakbridge Academy of Arts and Newport Business Institute closed Monday, apparently the victims of the owners' contentious divorce, financial problems and the resulting elimination of federal funding, according to court documents.
Oakbridge Academy offers associate degrees in photography and visual arts, and Newport offers associate degrees and diploma programs in several business fields.
The for-profit schools are jointly owned by Michelle and John Bryant Mullen. Both schools have campuses along Greensburg Road in Lower Burrell; Newport also has a campus in Williamsport.
Students at the Lower Burrell campuses said they were told Monday the schools were closing at the day's end, less than a month into the winter sessions.
“We came back from lunch and they called a student-faculty meeting,” said Oakbridge student Ekleana Mazziotti, 19, of Lower Burrell. “They told us (Monday) was the last day, so be sure to get all your stuff.”
“They basically told us there isn't going to be an Oakbridge anymore,” said Kaytelin Cowen, 19, of Indiana, Pa. “They said, ‘If you have anything here, get it now because the doors are going to be locked tomorrow.' ”
In a two-paragraph, unsigned statement provided by the schools on Tuesday, the closure was attributed to “challenging economic times and restrictions on reimbursement and funding.”
Michelle Mullen, who answered the phone at Oakbridge, declined to comment further.
“All alternatives to closing the schools were actively pursued up the very last minute possible,” read the schools' news release.
Documents filed in three civil cases in Allegheny County Court indicated the schools' finances have been in decline for several years. A December 2012 court filing references operating losses in 2008, 2009 and 2011 amid gross annual revenue ranging from $2.3 million to $3.5 million.
The schools also are operated under the business names Mullen Corp. and Nicolette Monet Inc. with Michelle Mullen and her estranged husband, John Bryant Mullen Sr., as co-owners.
The Oakmont couple separated in 2008 and have been entangled in divorce proceedings since 2009, according to court records.
Court orders have barred both Mullens at times from school properties since 2011 amid allegations from one that the other was trying to sabotage the business.
In February, Allegheny Court Judge Christine A. Ward appointed Michelle Mullen's brother, Michael Lawer, as a receiver to run the schools.
John Bryant Mullen then was ordered to stay away from the schools and not be involved in day-to-day operations.
John Bryant Mullen could not be reached for comment.
His attorney, Joseph F. McCarthy III, said Mullen has not been involved in the business for most of 2013 and denies many of the claims that are “scandalous and defamatory in nature.”
“Mr. Mullen's dedication spanning more than three decades in the school business ... is well documented,” McCarthy said in a written statement. “Mr. Mullen has given everything he has to the schools over that time. What has happened recently is certainly recognized as a period of sadness and frustration shared by many.”
As recently as October, Michelle Mullen alleged John Bryant Mullen had not paid $83,000 as ordered by the court to cover several months worth of mortgage on the schools, according to court records.
Additionally, the schools needed to provide letters of credit totalling more than $250,000 to the U.S. Department of Education in order to qualify for financial aid funding, according to court documents.
Those documents indicate that Michelle Mullen was unable to secure the credit from banks due to the businesses' and couple's poor finances.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, confirmed the schools did not receive financial aid for the current term because of the lack of a letter of credit.
Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, could not confirm the schools' credit situation Tuesday afternoon.
However, she noted their “financial responsibility composite score” — used to determine financial health — placed them in a range that deemed them financially responsible but requiring additional oversight.
“These schools are subject to cash monitoring and other participation requirements,” according to department information online, which notes those requirements might not be necessary if an affected school posts a letter of credit amounting to at least 50 percent of the federal aid they'd receive.
Several students who experienced delays in receiving financial aid disbursements from the school this fall said they were told it was due to the federal government shutdown, which began Oct. 1.
However, letters from the Department of Education included in court documents indicate the schools were supposed to supply the proof of credit in July; the deadline was extended in August and again in September.
The most recent communication from the department included in the court documents is dated Oct. 7 and indicates federal financial aid funding could not be released without the proof of credit. That email indicates the contact person at the Education Department could not be reached by phone due to the shutdown, which ended Oct. 17.
On Monday, Michelle Mullen filed a new civil suit against John Bryant Mullen, alleging he owed her nearly $400,000 per a Jan. 24 agreement relating to the businesses.
Michelle Mullen's attorney, Margie Hammer, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
‘We are not abandoning you!'
“Please cut us some slack. We have an incredible amount of work to do,” Michelle Mullen told a reporter on Tuesday, adding that helping the students was her top priority.
“Although today must be the last official day of school, we are not abandoning you!” was what Mullen and Executive Director Mary Jane Gatty told students in a letter distributed on Monday.
Eller said the state Education Department was notified on Monday of the closure, which appears to violate a state requirement that schools give 30 days notice.
Eller said 36 students are enrolled at Oakbridge, 46 at Newport in Lower Burrell and 36 at Newport's Williamsport location.
Several students indicated they had no idea the closure was coming, although a few said they suspected something was amiss when refunds for the fall semester didn't arrive as expected in October.
Cowen, who had just begun her second 10-week term at Oakbridge, said her mother began calling the school more than a month ago to question when the refund would arrive. She said her mother never could get a straight answer.
Cowen and other students said their financial aid was disbursed directly to the school; any money remaining after tuition was paid was refunded to the students for living and other expenses.
Tuition for one term at Oakbridge was about $4,000, according to the school's 2013-14 catalog. Students said they would attend the school for eight terms, or two years, to earn an associate degrees.
That would equate to a total tuition of about $32,000.
Tuition at Newport was about $3,850 per quarter for students taking four or five courses, according to the 2013-14 course catalog. For the 13 associate degree programs offered, total tuition ranged from about $27,000 to almost $31,000; tuition for the eight diploma programs ranged from about $7,700 to $15,000, according to the catalog.
Cowen said her refund was for her rent at the Nittany Highlands Apartments in Upper Burrell, which cater primarily to Penn State New Kensington students.
With no reason to stay in the area, Cowen said she had to quit her job and move out of her apartment Tuesday so she wouldn't be charged another month's rent. She said management is working with her to break her yearlong lease.
Students said administrators promised to help them transition to new schools, but details haven't been forthcoming.
“They said they would get back to us after the holidays,” said Mazziotti, a visual arts student who had begun her sixth term at Oakbridge.
“We're not getting answer to the many questions that we have,” said Rianna Ruedisueli, 20, of Moon, an Oakbridge photography student.
“The owner said they'd help as much as they can, but right now, they don't know,” said Dana Pfister, 22, of West View. She expected to earn her photography degree in May. “If you're going to drop this bombshell, you have to have answers.”
State: Students owed refund
“Students are entitled to either placement at another school or a refund of tuition paid,” said Eller, who indicated the department would help students find alternative placements.
Even teachers at Oakbridge were taken aback by the announcement.
Diana Zourelias of Aspinwall said she got a call on Monday that if she wanted to say goodbye to her students, she had to come to the school before it closed.
“I went up and it was like a funeral. Everyone keeps crying,” said Zourelias, a freelance artist who taught visual design part time at Oakbridge for about seven years. “It was awful. The thing about the school, it was like a family.”
Denise Shean, a part-time instructor since 2008 and a 1982 graduate, also referenced Oakbridge's family atmosphere.
“We all put our hearts and souls into the place. It wasn't your ordinary school,” said Shean, a graphics artist for the Valley News Dispatch.
Efforts to reach several Newport students and teachers were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
Oakbridge students said they're reaching out to anyone they can think of in hopes of saving their school.
“We're trying to save this school,” Mazziotti said. “We're not done with it yet.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.