Parents at one of Howard County's fast-growing private schools have raised more than $100,000 to help the school's founders and their elementary school, at a time when the couple's crushing debt is pushing them toward bankruptcy.
Raymond and Gayle Chapman of Columbia and their separate preschool, the Columbia Academy, face more than $200,000 in business and personal debts, including $146,000 in Internal Revenue Service liens, court records show.
Until parents stepped in this summer to help the Chapmans, those debts threatened to scuttle the reopening and expansion next month of the elementary school also run by the couple, the Columbia Academy Elementary School. Their fund-raising efforts are earmarked for property taxes and the elementary school's expansion.
The Chapmans contend that their financial crisis is the result of racial discrimination by NationsBank, one of the largest banks in the country, in connection with a $210,000 business loan they sought in 1992 to expand their preschool. Mr. Chapman is black and Mrs. Chapman is white.
Through a spokesman, John Riggin, NationsBank denies any discrimination. The bank says it's barred by federal banking regulations from commenting further on what happened with the Chapmans' loan -- which the couple's loan documents show was approved by the bank but never went to settlement.
Parents -- some of whom have loaned more than $5,000 to the Chapmans' Columbia Academy Elementary School, a small, nonsectarian school -- say they are aware their money may be at risk.
But they also say the Chapmans have disclosed their most pressing debts, and the parents want to see the elementary school survive despite the preschool's debt problems.
"I trust the Chapmans with my child," said William Marose, a father who is among those leading the fund-raising effort. "Why not my money? They have kept no secrets from us."
The elementary school is the second education enterprise started by the Chapmans, neither of whom have a background in education. In 1991, they founded the Columbia Academy, the day-care and preschool on Route 108 in Columbia; its enrollment this fall is projected at about 200.
The Chapmans started the elementary school last school year in the Rivers Corporate business park on Old Columbia Road in the Village of Kings Contrivance. Tuition will average $6,500 in September, with a projected enrollment of 167 -- about 70 more than last year.
Their financial problems came to light at a June 16 meeting with parents during which the Chapmans said an unidentified investor had dropped out of a partnership deal just two days before.
They told parents that because of that and their inability to pay a property tax bill due on the elementary school, they would be unable to expand the elementary school and would have to move it out of the leased business park building and merge it with their preschool.
Soon after that meeting, in which the Chapmans also disclosed the IRS lien, parents began raising money to loan to the Chapmans, Mr. Marose said.
In all, the Columbia Academy Parents Association estimates it will have to raise about $170,000 to lend the Chapmans so they can keep the elementary school open and complete a 3,500-square-foot expansion project that will include three classrooms and a music room.
"Frankly, the Parents Association's concern is not the preschool but the elementary school," Mr. Marose said. "Is there a risk? Of course. But to us, the more important risk is losing a good education for our children."
The Chapmans trace their financial troubles to the NationsBank loan they sought in 1992 for an expansion project at the preschool.
"If we had just gotten that loan, all the little bills would have been paid off," said Mrs. Chapman, a former accountant. "We would have been stars. Life would have been great. Business would have been booming. Now we just want to clean up the mess they created."
The loan was to have been made by NationsBank and backed by a state program available to day-care businesses seeking to expand. The couple got a commitment letter from the bank in August 1992. State officials familiar with the program say it is rare for such a loan not to go to settlement after the bank sends a commitment letter.
Mr. Chapman contends that the loan officer assigned to the deal went into "shock" when he met the interracial couple after they received the loan commitment letter. After that, the loan officer became difficult to reach, Mr. Chapman said.
Mr. Chapman says he never received any documentation from NationsBank explaining why the loan didn't close. He declined to let reporters review all of his records on the 1992 loan.
But he did show two reporters an April 19, 1995, letter from a NationsBank attorney which states that the 1992 loan had "expired." That letter also included a statement that the Chapmans' reapplication for the $210,000 was being denied because of "the borrower's insufficient net worth and inadequate cash flow."