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Md. Church, School Owe $4.7 Million, Records Show

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Temple Hills church and school facing the possible loss of its property in a foreclosure auction appear to owe at least $4.7 million to creditors, according to court records, and the school's principal and another top administrator resigned Wednesday.

Progressive Baptist Church in Temple Hills owes more than $2.86 million on the mortgage for its 11.7-acre campus on Brinkley Road, which includes a church, a house and several school buildings, according to foreclosure documents filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court by an attorney for M&T Bank, which holds the mortgage. The church and school together owe at least an additional $1.88 million in overdue state and federal taxes, and Pastor Don deJuan Massey, the head of the church, owes at least an additional $619,000 in federal taxes, according to federal and Maryland tax liens filed in circuit court.

Amid the financial difficulties, Melvin Blount, who was hired as the school's principal a month ago, and his wife, Bennice Thayer, director of administration, operations and curriculum, resigned Wednesday, Blount said.

"We resigned because we were seeking out opportunities for other remuneration," he said, although he added that the school had been paying them. He and his wife had been hired as consultants, leaving them flexibility in the terms of their contract, he said.

Blount said teachers complained to him that Massey had not been paying them on time, although he said they told him that they were getting paid eventually. He said that Massey had been "quite frank" with the couple about the school's finances and that the couple, in turn, had made sure to tell parents.

The property is scheduled to be auctioned Sept. 22. But Massey said Thursday that he was confident he would negotiate a deal before then. M&T Bank said in a statement Thursday that "as a general practice" the bank listens to "reasonable" proposals from borrowers to avoid foreclosures. A partner with the auction firm A.J. Billig said Thursday that he was not aware of any negotiations.

Massey did not return repeated calls for comment Friday.

Just one of about a dozen parents contacted Thursday was aware that the school was in financial distress, although Massey said he had told "some" parents. Parents had mixed reactions Friday to the news of the school's finances.

"A lot of the parents were in a lot of uproar," said Solomon Milburn, a parent. "A lot of the parents who were at a sports meeting didn't know what was going on and had to be made aware."

But one mother said she was assuaged by the school's assurances that it would emerge unscathed.

"I placed a call, and I did hear that everything had been worked out," Johnetta Keeve said.

Massey attributed the church's financial problems to a decline in enrollment and gifts, but he declined to say how much the enrollment has dropped or give the size of his congregation.

The church last made a payment on its mortgage in May 2008, court records show. The mortgage was for $2.8 million when it was issued in 2004, but interest and other fees have increased the amount the church owes. The church has paid $176,000 toward the mortgage in the past five years.

Staff researchers Julie Tate and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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