MGCCC’s plans to bring in USA move forward

Community college leaders say deal is legal

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s governing board voted this week to move forward with bringing the University of South Alabama to its Gautier campus.

The partnership between MGCCC and the out-of-state university has come under criticism by supporters of the University of Southern Mississippi, which is leaving the Gautier campus this summer. One of the sticking points has been the community college’s plan to give USA free rent for the first year.

Despite some questions raised by state officials this week, MGCCC President Willis Lott said the contract is legal and the community college relied on a draft attorney general’s opinion to that effect when it voted on Wednesday.

The contract is a three-year agreement between MGCCC and USA with the free-rent option for the first year only. Lott said he met with the State Auditor’s Office Thursday to clear up any problem that office might have expressed it had with the agreement.

Both Lott and a representative of State Auditor Stacey Pickering’s office said the auditor issued a letter earlier this week questioning the contract. However, the letter was based on incorrect information.

“I talked with the State Auditor’s chief of staff at 1:50 p.m. I carried a copy of the contract and a rough draft of the Attorney General’s opinion that says our contract is legal,” Lott said Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant even weighed in on the issue with a letter to the MGCCC Board of Trustees before it voted on Wednesday. But a spokesman for Bryant said the lieutenant governor’s role was mostly fact-finding and that he was concerned that two state institutions, MGCCC and USM, might not be getting along.

“He wanted to make sure there was no ill will,” said Mick Bullock, Bryant’s spokesman.

Lott said that 21 of the 23 members of the Board of Trustees attended the meeting Wednesday and all but one voted for the contract with USA.

“We’re moving forward,” Lott said. “There’s still one more step that USA’s got to go through.”

Lott said they offered USA the first year rent-free to help them cover the $100,000 cost of moving in — furnishing the building, buying and installing computer equipment and installing video networking equipment.

USM paid $171,000 in rent for the entire building last school year. USA will rent only a portion of the building.

Lott said they will begin charging USA in the second year based on the amount of space it rents.

“We’re charging them the exact same price per square foot we were charging USM,” Lott said.

State Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, said he spoke up on the issue this week because some of his constituents were concerned that what happened might not have been fair to USM. He said they were also concerned with an out-of-state university setting up shop on a Mississippi college campus.

Hewes said he doesn’t know if USM would have stayed had it been offered a lower rent or a year rent-free, but he wanted to make sure they were given the same opportunities as USA.

“And if they weren’t, why not?” he said.

Hewes said he understands that USM is trying to watch its budget and so is MGCCC.

By KAREN NELSON – klnelson@sunherald.com
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