ATLANTA (BP)–The Georgia Court of Appeals rendered a decision on March 17 against Shorter College and its attempt to dissolve its relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
The court agreed with the position of the convention that Shorter had acted illegally last April when the college acted to dissolve and transfer all its assets to a new corporation with a self-perpetuating board of trustees, thus separating itself from the state convention.
In its written decision, the Court of Appeals stated that “the trial court erred in failing to consider the GBC’s contention that the dissolution was a sham.” Upon reviewing Shorter’s action, the court concluded, “It is not a true dissolution. Absent the GBC’s approval, it cannot stand.”
Quoting from Shorter’s charter, the court stated that the college “shall be managed, operated and controlled by a Board of Trustees” and that all trustees “shall be elected” by the Georgia Baptist Convention. The Court of Appeals instructed the trial court to set aside the dissolution.
The Georgia convention’s executive director, J. Robert White, called the ruling “a great decision for the convention,” the GBC’s newsjournal, The Christian Index, reported. White noted the ruling’s “broad and positive implications for Baptists, other denominations and nonprofit corporations” that have longstanding relationships with similar institutions.
White added that Georgia Baptists “have believed from our first knowledge of the efforts of Shorter College to separate from the convention that their attempts were contrary to their charter and contrary to Georgia law. I am very pleased that the Court of Appeals has affirmed our position.”
Charles Drummond, pastor of Shorter Avenue Church in Rome and moderator of Floyd Baptist Association, declared, “Shorter College is an integral part of Rome as well as the state of Georgia. We love the school and have been praying for a wise and prudent decision regarding the school’s future.
“The vast majority of Georgia Baptists welcome a decision supporting the convention, and we are prepared to do whatever we can to facilitate the college’s growth and success in the days ahead.”
Drummond then added, “I believe this will open the door for literally hundreds of Georgia Baptist churches to partner with the school in the Christian training of young men and women. We look forward to the kind of relationship we believe this will afford our church and many others who want to see the school succeed.”
Jim Reynolds, pastor of Spring Creek Church in Rome and a member of the convention’s administration committee, added, “The court’s decision concerning Shorter College is the best news I have heard in a long time. There has been a heavy cloud hanging over our area, but I feel like the cloud may now be lifting. This will greatly encourage our churches and may well bring revival to our county.”
While Georgia Baptist leadership has expressed gratitude for the ruling, they cautioned that Shorter may attempt a further appeal. Shorter trustee chairman Gary Eubanks already has signaled that the college intends to apply for a certificate of review from the Georgia Supreme Court.
In a prepared statement March 17, Eubanks said, “The ruling by the Court of Appeals is disappointing, and we believe there are strong reasons for the Georgia Supreme Court to hear our case, consider its merits and reverse today’s decision.”
Eubanks claimed that the issue “is fundamentally about” Shorter College complying with accreditation requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. “Our goal,” Eubanks said, “is to protect Shorter College and foster its cherished academic reputation.”
The college’s president, Ed Schrader, was not available for comment.
The GBC and the college had collaborated on the trustee selection process from 1959 until 2001.
In November 2001, the college leased all of its assets and operations to Shorter College Foundation, Inc., thereby creating a self-perpetuating board of trustees that would control the college. Upon learning of the lease in January 2002, the convention, which had invested more than $26 million dollars in the institution, immediately cut off funding. The college then rescinded the lease.
Collaboration in the trustee selection process eroded when Shorter’s board of trustees amended their bylaws on May 31, 2002, to gain additional control over the trustee process. In accordance with its new bylaws, the college then selected 16 candidates to fill eight trustee positions and submitted its list to the GBC.
The convention claimed the new bylaw amendment was illegal and in conflict with Shorter’s charter. At its annual meeting on Nov. 12, 2002, the GBC rejected the college’s proposed candidates, instead electing eight others to serve as trustees. Shorter’s bylaw amendment in May was later declared void in the court case.
Shorter’s efforts to separate from the convention continued and on Nov. 22, 2002, its trustees voted to sue the convention and to dissolve the college and transfer all assets and liabilities to the Shorter College Foundation, which would control the college through its own board of trustees.
That is when the litigation began.
Shorter filed a lawsuit against the convention and the Georgia Baptist Foundation seeking funds which the convention had withheld until the situation could be resolved.
The convention responded to the lawsuit with a counterclaim, seeking an injunction to stop the college from implementing its dissolution plan. On April 23 of last year Judge Daniel Coursey of the DeKalb Superior Court issued an order which allowed Shorter to dissolve the corporation known as Shorter College. The school then transferred all its assets and operations to the newly formed Shorter College Foundation, Inc.
The trial court’s order was appealed to the Court of Appeals, which resulted in the March 17 decision that Shorter acted contrary to Georgia law governing nonprofit corporations.
Convention attorney Walter Bush, who argued the case, indicated that what Shorter tried to do was unprecedented. To sum up the situation, Bush said, “Shorter’s dissolution was a sham and the court called their hand on it.”
He then added, “The Court of Appeals has ruled that Shorter’s trustees acted contrary to Georgia law and has ordered their actions set aside. Setting aside the dissolution will reinstate Shorter College as an institution of the Georgia Baptist Convention.”
White told The Index, “The thought of losing Shorter College was like losing a member of our convention family. We are extremely thankful for the court’s decision supporting our position. We have every intention of having a Baptist college at Shorter, which will provide the very finest college-level education in a wholesome Christian environment.”
Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.