MILLERSBURG — Jay Whitehead wants people to know: Forest Hill Military Academy, Kentucky's only military school, is down but not out.
As headmaster, Whitehead hopes to revive the 121-year-old institution in the wake of sex-abuse charges, receivership, debt, buildings shut down for safety concerns, and alleged interference from the school's former leadership.
"I've got to turn this place around, make it successful on its own, and start a new reputation for the place," Whitehead, 54, said. "And we've done that to a certain extent, but we still have a way to go."
For the moment, all is quiet on the 18-acre campus in northern Bourbon County. No cadets are boarding there because the college-prep school has temporarily closed.
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It's a far cry from the school's zenith in the 1940s and '50s, when what was then known as Millersburg Military Institute had an enrollment in the hundreds, or when then-University of Kentucky football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (before becoming a legend at Alabama) brought the Wildcats to tiny Millersburg for grueling preseason camps.
The institute counted author Wendell Berry, retired U.S. Supreme Court Clerk William K. Suter, international firearms expert Col. George M. Chinn and NBA basketball player Tom Boerwinkle among its alumni.
During these dreary winter months, Whitehead plans for the summer, when he hopes to attract 200 or more boys and girls for the annual military adventure camps. That series of camps held over an eight-week period is where the school makes money.
And money is needed now if the school is to pay down its $800,000 debt and eventually reopen for cadets who will live on campus.
"If we haven't been able to pay down our debt and get things under control financially, then there's no reason to reimplement the (boarding) school," Whitehead said. "When we do reopen the school, we want to do it right and make sure that it is financially self-sufficient."
The school brings out-of-town visitors and dollars to Millersburg, population: 791. But more than that, the town's identity and heritage is intertwined with the school, said Lorrain Smoot, a member of Millersburg City Council.
"We can go places and say, 'We're from Millersburg,' and they'll say, 'Oh, home of MMI,'" Smoot said.
As with any institution that's more than a century old, the school has had its ups and downs. But the last nine years have been the most challenging and distracting for the school, its staff and the town.
The school closed in 2006, citing problems in paying its bills and employees, and sent its students home one week before spring break.
In 2008, the school was purchased by the U.S. Army Cadet Corps, a Pennsylvania outfit that learned through eBay that the school was for sale. The Cadet Corps is a private nonprofit that is not affiliated with the Army.
For a time, the school appeared to be on the upswing. Then a series of events in 2013 shook the school and its supporters.
In March 2013, a Pendleton County mother filed suit against the Cadet Corps. The suit alleged that a former camp instructor had made advances against her son. It also alleged misconduct against her daughter by a fellow cadet. The suit is still pending; the instructor is no longer there.
In June 2013, three months after the lawsuit was filed, a fire inspector ordered the Cadet Corps to evacuate about 70 teenagers and some adult staffers from two buildings after finding safety concerns.
The problems included electrical wiring dangling from the ceilings, kids sleeping within inches of exposed wiring sticking out of the wall, missing fire extinguishers, inoperative fire alarm systems, missing smoke detectors and detectors that were inoperable.
Another blow came in August 2013, when Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway filed suit in Bourbon County against the Cadet Corps. The remaining leadership and board members of the Cadet Corps had resigned as the attorney general's office investigated concerns of mismanagement. The attorney general has authority under state law to step in when there is no functioning board to oversee the charitable assets of a nonprofit corporation.
A Bourbon Circuit Court judge appointed a receiver, Paris attorney Henry Watson, to oversee the school's finances and day-to-day operation until a new board is in place.
"The receiver can go in and say, 'It's time to pull the plug,'" Watson said. "Or the receiver can say, 'This can be rehabilitated and let's try to work through it.'"
Watson and Whitehead hoped to do the latter. Then, in September 2013, the other shoe dropped. Following a Kentucky State Police investigation, a Bourbon County grand jury indicted a former school employee on three counts of first-degree sexual abuse. The three alleged incidents involved sexual contact with two individuals younger than 18. That criminal case is still pending.
In December 2013, Watson, the court-appointed receiver, filed an affidavit alleging that former Corps employees had violated the agreed order by interfering with the school's operation.
Watson specifically alleged in an affidavit that former school commander Joseph M. Land Sr. or his son had deleted a Facebook page for the military adventure camps and had deleted 400 contacts and potential camp participants. This violated a term of the judge's agreed order that said Land was to release all Cadet Corps websites, social media outlets and other means of communication affiliated with the Corps.
Joseph Land Sr. did not address specific allegations when contacted by the Herald-Leader. But his attorney, Robert C. Welleford of Lexington, wrote: "The Lands deny all allegations of wrongdoing or non-compliance. Extensive time and effort has been spent working with the Kentucky Attorney General's office to dispel those allegations and to assure proactive compliance."
Whitehead, who had been hired by Land in early 2013, took over as headmaster in August of that year.
Whitehead's background is in business, not education. A former project manager for Ascendum, a technology company in Cincinnati, he was Lexington Mayor Teresa Isaac's chief administrative officer in 2006. Before that, he ran unsuccessfully against Ernie Fletcher for the Republican nomination in the 1998 6th Congressional District race and against Stan Lee in the 2000 Republican primary for the 45th House District.
In 2010, Whitehead lost to David O'Neill in the race to be Fayette County property valuation administrator.
Whitehead hopes to get board members and leadership in place who would have the academic background the school needs.
The receivership won't end until the court is satisfied that the school is capable of operating in the best interests of the public and students, and when a new board is approved by the court, said Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.
"Right now, I'm trying to fix things enough so that somebody would want to be a board member," Whitehead said. "I've still got to make the place financially viable."
That in itself is an uphill battle. Schools that combine academics with military training have been a dying breed since the Vietnam era. The recession took down others. Today the 100-year-old Association of Military Schools and Colleges of the United States counts 28 college-prep high schools as members, said Executive Director Ray Rottman. (The Millersburg school once was a member but does not belong now.)
Part of the decline of military boarding schools is due to their high cost. Existing schools charge from $15,000 to $42,000 a year, Rottman said. The Cadet Corps charged $24,000 a year.
In addition, having a sixth-grader leave home to go to school is not a popular option among many families.
Furthermore, the model of trying to have "alumni from the '50s who want to throw money at it because they have good memories of it — that old model just doesn't work any more," Rottman said.
It's rare for closed schools to revive. Many are so dilapidated that it's impossible for them to raise the money necessary to refurbish dormitories and other buildings.
"If you get the right person in there, and they're willing to look at things in an open way and they've got fire in the belly and they're an outgoing personality who can engage and sell their product, those people can make it happen," Rottman said.
But "at the end of the day, the head of the school has to be a businessman," he said. "You have to balance the books. You can't go year after year limping along. You've got to build for the future."
That's what Whitehead is attempting to do on several fronts. A priority on his agenda was to get buildings up to code so that cadets would be safe.
During Whitehead's tenure, a benefactor donated $100,000 for a fire-suppression system to be installed in Miller Hall, the main dormitory built in 1946. Another $100,000 donation was used to tear down two-thirds of Rankin Hall, which had been shut down after a fire-safety inspection. He needs an additional $30,000 to rehabilitate what's left of Rankin's interior and put brick on a rear exterior wall.
Meanwhile, Whitehead is getting word out — through Google ads — about the military adventure camps this summer. The camps, which cost $2,400 for two weeks, have drawn more than 200 students from Asia, Africa and Europe as well as the United States. Eighty percent of the school's revenue comes from those camps, Whitehead said.
But there are other offerings for cadets whose families want to spend less.
In December a "pathfinders" course taught winter survival skills to participants. They spent three days and two nights in tents at Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park in Nicholas County.
Camren Brewer, 16, an Air Force ROTC cadet at Scott County High, said he initially wanted to go home after experiencing frigid outdoor temperatures.
"At first, it was like, it's cold. I don't want to do this," Brewer said. "But after a while, it was like, this is fun. I learned I could actually go through something like that."
Another source of money is a program in which ROTC students from area high schools come to Millersburg one weekend per month. In late January, 13 students from Harrison, Jackson and Scott counties spent a Saturday and Sunday in training exercises. One exercise included the use of pugil sticks, which are padded training weapons.
Dakota Wells, 18, of Harrison County High School, said the Air Force ROTC emphasizes classroom work, while the weekend classes at Millersburg are more about hands-on training.
"Just as we're doing this pugil stick exercise now, it teaches you courage," Wells said. "Yes, you might get banged up there a little bit, but you've still got to get out there and try. The instructors teach you it is OK to fear things, but it's OK to try them as well. In a way it's pushing me to be a better person, and that's why I like the military."
Initially, Whitehead hoped to reopen the boarding school — under the revived name of Millersburg Military Institute — in time for the fall of 2015. But now he and Watson aren't sure whether that will happen.
"I would say the fall of '15 would be optimistic," Watson said. "I just don't know how much demand there is out there for children to want to leave home and come to a military boarding school. I would say 2015 would be extremely optimistic."
Smoot, the city council member, said she believes the boarding school could come back if Whitehead and Watson can find "a military man" to take the reins.
"Parents want some kind of leadership direction for their kids," she said.
David Knox, a retired circuit judge for Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties and an MMI alumnus, said Whitehead "is a good man. I think he's really trying to make a good go of it. I think there's no question about his earnestness."
But Knox added, "It's a real trick to operate a military school.
"If you're going to try to do it, it has to be very carefully planned and structured. You've got to have careful supervision, you've got to have a curriculum, you've got to have teachers, you've got to have supervisors. There's a lot to do to start one of those things and a lot to do to keep it going."