The University of the District of Columbia School of Law will lose its accreditation in August unless school officials can persuade American Bar Association officials to reverse the decision, Dean William Robinson said yesterday.
Law school officials said they would fight to win accreditation, but UDC Acting President Julius F. Nimmons said he is not optimistic. "As much as I would like it to be, the scenario does not hold. It just does not hold," he said.
Loss of accreditation would spell the effective end of the public-interest law school, which was created in 1986 by the D.C. Council as an independent institution but which merged with UDC in 1995. The school's current 230 students could complete their degrees and sit for the bar, but the school could not recruit new students and guarantee that their degrees would have any worth.
Law school officials said confidentiality rules barred them from discussing why an ABA committee has voted against accreditation. But knowledgeable sources said ABA officials are concerned about the school's diminished funding and about $312,167 in bills for goods and services that UDC officials did not pay and that the D.C. inspector general has questioned in a new report.
The report by Inspector General Angela L. Avant said some of the spending -- which included storage fees, advertising costs and the dean's $50 annual dues for the Washington Bar Association -- appeared to be "unnecessary and wasteful." She recommended disciplinary action against school officials who handled the procurements.
Robinson denied that procurement regulations were violated and attributed the problem to former UDC officials who failed to pay bills for which there was adequate funding. Nimmons said he agreed with Robinson.
The controversy over the accreditation and unpaid bills is the latest in a list of troubles for the law school. It was created by the D.C. Council -- over the objections of Mayor Marion Barry, who later came to support it -- after the demise of Antioch Law School, which had emphasized service to the poor.
The law school has weathered numerous attacks from various commissions and politicians who have said the District does not need or cannot afford a public law school.
Law school officials and the school's supporters say it is unique because of its mission: to provide affordable legal education to large numbers of minorities and D.C. residents, and to offer, through clinics, legal representation to low-income residents. Students are required to provide 750 hours of legal aid to the poor during their three years of study.
In the past, the school has been criticized by the ABA for low faculty salaries, insufficient law library expenditures, low staffing levels in some areas and low bar passage rates, but officials said they had addressed those problems.
"It would be tragic for this law school to close," said Doug Hartnett, 35, a third-year student who is treasurer of the Student Bar Association. "The issue isn't about us -- we would still get our degrees -- but the issue is about . . . continuing to provide the services we do for the city and providing the opportunity for home-grown leadership."
The law school has had provisional accreditation since 1991 but had to reapply after the merger with UDC. The ABA committee denied the new petition from the UDC law school and said it would remove the old institution from the list of accredited schools in August. Robinson said any law degrees granted this spring will say they come from the D.C. School of Law.
Nimmons said he would ask Robinson to devise a plan for closing the law school. But school officials said there were several opportunities to persuade the ABA to approve accreditation before August, and they noted that in 1991, the national legal organization initially had denied accreditation but changed its recommendation.
Bar association officials met recently with Robinson and Nimmons for a hearing on the school's status and expressed concern about, among other issues, the unpaid bills that Avant detailed in her report.
Robinson said former UDC president Tilden J. LeMelle, who resigned under pressure in November, was obligated to pay the bills under the merger agreement but did not.
LeMelle was unavailable for comment.
Robinson said that law school officials did not break any procurement regulations or procedures and that, therefore, there was no reason to discipline anybody. In a detailed response to Avant, he took issue with a number of items she had labeled questionable, including thousands of dollars in fees for storage that she said could have been avoided by employing unused space at UDC.
He said that some of the storage expenses were incurred when furniture and equipment were stored on an emergency basis when the space allocated to the law school at UDC proved to be inadequate. He called the money spent on advertising the law school in newspapers an appropriate method of enticing students and said his contract provides that the school pay dues for professional associations on top of his $89,000 annual salary.
The ABA also is concerned about the level of funding for the law school and UDC itself. UDC's city appropriations have been cut more than 50 percent since 1991, and the law school has had whopping cuts.
For the current fiscal year, the school is getting $1.8 million in city appropriations, down from $3.9 million in 1995. It has raised $2.1 million through tuition and fund-raising. The school took measures to increase revenue, raising tuition last year from $3,500 to $7,000 for D.C. residents and from $7,000 to $14,000 for nonresidents. CAPTION: William Robinson, law school dean, attributes spending problems to former UDC officials. CAPTION: Doug Hartnett, a third-year law student and treasurer of the Student Bar Association, and Joann Harris, a first-year law student, talk in the law library.