JACKSON, MS (WLOX) - The State Auditor's Office is now backing down from its earlier assertion that Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College's deal with the University of South Alabama could violate state law, saying it did not have all the facts.
Both State Auditor Stacey Pickering and Lt. Governor Phil Bryant sent letters to the MGCCC Board objecting to the agreement to allow USA to offer classes at the community college's Gautier campus.
"People are very concerned with brining [sic] in another institution of higher learning from a neighboring state," said Lt. Governor Phil Bryant in a letter sent Tuesday.
Pickering's letter focuses on the terms of the deal which will allow USA to use space on the Gautier campus rent-free for one year. Citing state statute, Pickering writes "The rule in Mississippi is well settled. The donation of public property is absolutely prohibited."
Pickering advised MGCCC that the law requires it to receive "fair market value" from USA for use of the buildings "to avoid a prohibited donation."
MGCCC President Willis Lott told WLOX News that USA is not getting the Gautier building for free. He said the school has committed to providing $100,000 worth of improvements to the facility, including adding video conferencing, internet connections, computers, desks and more. Lott said the rent was $66,000 a year, so MGCCC is coming out ahead in the deal.
Last week, MGCCC and USA announced a three year deal to operate a USA satellite campus in Gautier, offering business courses, as well as computer and information science courses. The University of Southern Mississippi has had a long-time agreement with MGCCC to offer classes at the Gautier campus. However, in August, USM announced it would close its operation at MGCCC due to budget constraints.
USM President Dr. Martha Saunders has expressed concern over the rent-free deal, since USM has paid for use of the space. Bryant's letter acknowledges USM may not be in a position to continue its presence on the Gautier campus and pay rent.
While he did not ask MGCCC to reconsider the deal, Bryant wrote, "a decision needs to be made as to what is best for MGCCC 's interests with regard to its financial stability, weighed against allowing an out-of-state institution to have a presence on a Mississippi public institution's campus."
Lott also said he met Thursday with the State Auditor's Office, and that officials there said the school's contract with USA appears legal, and not in violation of state law as they had previously questioned.
Lott said he previously met with the Attorney General's Office, and their unofficial opinion was the same, that it is a legal contract. The school will seek an official AG's opinion later this week.
President Lott also said he hopes this first year turns into a long term partnership with the University of South Alabama.