SIGNALS CROSSED

USM President Martha Saunders

GULFPORT 

The University of Southern Mississippi has been releasing “propaganda” about an agreement between a local community college and an Alabama university, officials with the community college said Monday.

Willis Lott, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said he was surprised by recent comments from USM President Martha Saunders, as well as questions from state officials regarding the legality of the agreement.

“We feel like the University of Southern Mississippi did not give all the facts,” Lott said.

Saunders said in the March 14 edition of the Sun Herald she didn’t know about the partnership between MGCCC and the University of South Alabama until she read it in the newspaper on March 13. Lott said he sent Saunders an e-mail last October telling her about talks between the two schools.

Saunders said she received Lott’s e-mail last fall but said she didn’t know the deal was final until she read it in the newspaper.

“There’s a far cry between meeting with people and finalizing a deal,” Saunders said.

Lott also said he has left several messages for Saunders but she hasn’t returned his calls. Saunders said she hasn’t been in her office in more than a week and hasn’t gotten any messages from Lott.

Officials announced recently that USA will be renting space from MGCCC that currently is occupied by USM. USM officials said last fall because of the budget crisis the school would transfer the programs at the building to other facilities to save $200,000 a year in rent. USM also paid $160,000 to maintain and improve the building.

Lott said he didn’t know USM wouldn’t rent the building anymore until he read it in the Sun Herald in August.

He said he began looking for somebody else to rent the building so the community college wouldn’t lose any money.

Hank Bounds, state commissioner of higher education, told Lott it wasn’t economically feasible for any other university in Mississippi to rent the building from MGCCC.

Lott said because 18 percent of the community college’s students go to USA, he approached officials there, and they were interested in the building.

“The (Jackson County) supervisors built this building so the residents of Jackson County could have opportunities for degrees,” Lott said. “We searched out all the Mississippi institutions that could partner with us and there were none, so we looked elsewhere.”

The contract is for USA to rent the building on the Gautier campus for three years, and the first year MGCCC won’t charge rent. Lott said USA requested that provision because it is spending $100,000 to furnish the part of the building it is using. The community college is charging USA the same amount per square foot as USM, but USA is using only half of the building.

Representatives from MGCCC and USM met in February 2009 to talk about renewing the contract, and Lott said USM gave no indication then it wouldn’t be renting the building anymore. Lott said the community college offered to allow USM not to pay the $160,000 for 2010.

However, Bounds said that wasn’t the whole story. He said in the last four years, USM has paid $700,000 for facilities improvements, including $272,000 in 2009.

“That’s why USM wasn’t going to have to pay in 2010 — they paid more in 2009,” Bounds said, adding that it didn’t make economic sense for USM to keep renting from the community college.

“I clearly understand that creates a hole in your budget, but I don’t know how you make it up by not charging rent, even for a year,” Bounds said.

He added that he didn’t like the upheaval created by this situation.

“The unfortunate thing is that we should all be working together to provide education to the students in Mississippi,” he said. “Communication clearly should have been better.”

Several state officials have asked if the agreement between MGCCC and USA is legal, and last week, the State Auditors Office said it is because the contract is for three years. On Monday afternoon, Lott hand delivered a letter asking for an opinion from Attorney General Jim Hood.

“This agreement with USA isn’t against USM,” Lott said. “It’s about helping the people in Jackson County. I don’t consider this to be a war.”

  • Gallery:SIGNALS CROSSED
  • By MELISSA M. SCALLAN – mmscallan@sunherald.com

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