While a few students at Fisher More College were wrapping up their final exams this week, administrators were scrambling to find another home for the small Catholic liberal arts school after reaching an impasse with the property owners this week over rent payments.
The college, which moved into the former Our Lady of Victory convent at 801 W. Shaw St. less than a year ago, was unable to reach a deal with its landlords to remain in the building, even after a last-ditch effort at the courthouse Friday.
It must leave by May 31.
Anticipating that their prayers to stay at Our Lady of Victory might not be answered, students were already helping clean and pack in preparation for the exodus — and looking for other schools to attend.
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“It’s sad to see our school shut down,” Amber Siscoe of Fort Worth said this week as she prepared for her history and literature finals, as well as the move. She’s looking at other Catholic colleges, including one in Kansas.
“We loved it here. It’s just sad to see it shut down so quickly,” she said.
Problems surfaced in March when the landlords accused the school of not living up to its lease, even alleging that it owed thousands of dollars in rent, utilities and property taxes.
A lawsuit filed in Tarrant County civil court by the Victory Arts Management Group said Fisher More had a lease-to-own arrangement with Victory and owed $117,115 in costs because of its defaults. Victory was also seeking “liquidated damages” of $300,000.
In an effort to stay, the school and its landlords appeared to have reached a tentative agreement to settle the previous lawsuit, with Fisher More paying $13,628 in rent and the landlords allowing the college to remain until the end of the semester.
But the school was apparently unable to live up to its end of the deal, according to court documents.
On Monday, Victory Arts Management showed up with locksmiths, but the school denied them access because they didn’t have a court order to change the locks. Police were called.
“We pleaded with them to stand down,” Fisher More President Michael King said this week as he stood in the ornate chapel. King said the May rent had been paid.
The next day, the property owners filed several legal actions against the college, including a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow them to access the building and garnish Fisher More’s bank accounts.
All this led up to Friday’s courthouse negotiations.
State District Judge John Chupp asked the college and the landlords to “act like adults” and work it out. The sides met behind closed doors for over an hour and hammered out an agreement giving the landlords access so they can seek new tenants. The landlords agreed to drop the garnishment claims.
It’s not known what other financial arrangements were made.
Willie Lott, a representative for Victory Arts Management, and his attorney, Sean Lynch, declined to comment on the meetings.
‘Life has to go on’
King said he wants to move forward and explore options to keep the college open. The students enrolled are transferring to other Catholic colleges, he said.
Fisher More needs a place where it can conduct business along with its online academy and courses, he said.
King said he had hoped that the college could stay on at the former convent and use part of the building for college operations while he and other staffers worked on ways to continue holding classes and rebuild Fisher More’s finances.
But the dispute with the landlord made that impossible, he said.
“This was the perfect building for a college like ours,” he said.
Last fall, 42 were students enrolled. By spring, the number had dropped to 25 because of uncertainties about Fisher More’s ability to hold a spring semester, King said.
Siscoe said she helped organize a fundraising campaign for the school last winter and raised over $250,000 through social networking. Other donations were coming in as well.
The landlords also made a $150,000 donation, which went to paying the rent through May, King said. As a result, King contends that the college was never in arrears on rent.
That was still not enough to keep the college going in its current form.
Frances Rael, who lives near Fredericksburg, Va., is also volunteering to help the Fisher More administration move out.
Rael, 20, is getting an associate arts degree and wants to be an officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“It’s sad in many ways, but life has to go on,” Rael said.
Financial woes and more
The college was founded in 1981 as the College of St. Thomas More. In May 2012, the name was changed to also honor St. John Fisher, who, like More, was beheaded in 1535 by King Henry VIII for opposing the king’s divorce and refusing to recognize him as head of the Church of England.
The campus was in a residential area on Lubbock Avenue until June 2013, when it was sold to TCU.
The school moved to the six-story Gothic Revival red brick building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and was once the motherhouse of the western section of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur.
Another issue that has clouded Fisher More’s future is the controversy over the Latin Mass.
Bishop Michael Olson of the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese told the college in a letter that it could not continue using the Latin Mass, and the college hired a canonical lawyer to explore its options
King said the college is appealing to the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei in Rome for guidance, adding that celebrating the Latin Mass is a key mission of the college and a central focus of its beliefs and faith.