Seeking a little common sense

Published 12:15 am Saturday, February 22, 2014

It was curious timing for the committee that will find the next president of Alcorn State University to have sat down and listened to people talk about leadership qualities and such.
We heard of fairness in pay, becoming a more tech-savvy place to attend school and building a new bookstore, among other things. There’s one thing that might serve the next president well, especially when it comes to spending money — a little common sense.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press detailed $241,000 in improperly spent funds since Brown was installed as president in 2011. The gory details? Nearly $89,000 was spent on furniture and renovations at the president’s house without seeking competitive bids. A production company that staged campus concerts collected $85,000 in fees as part of the money ASU paid it.  And an interesting kicker as it relates to Vicksburg was $67,000 in bond money on its newly-opened satellite campus at Vicksburg Mall wasn’t supposed to be spent anywhere other than the main campus.
In December, State Auditor Stacey Pickering announced an investigation into the university’s spending practices. The inquiry, resulting from a whistleblower’s complaint to the College Board, greased the skids to Brown’s resignation, as well as the university’s initiatives and chief financial officer. It ended what by late summer 2013 was beginning to look like a good thing in Lorman.
In 2012, the Center for HBCU Media Advocacy named Alcorn its school of the year, and the next year it named Brown male HBCU president of the year. In August, the campus and officials with the Vicksburg Mall held a grand opening ceremony in front of the Pemberton Square Boulevard retail center when a long-discussed satellite campus opened and optimism was apparent.
Turns out, the bugaboo of many a shamed local government — a no-bid contract — apparently enabled much of the work at the Vicksburg campus. An outfit called Dana’s Interiors billed Alcorn $89,000 to install sofas, chairs, tables and pots for Brown’s home patio. No evidence exists that the work was bid out competitively as required by state law. Then, the company was involved in work to open its Vicksburg campus. The work wasn’t allowed under agreements with banks and other lenders because, as the university’s facilities vice-president noted in the AP report, the bond money spent at the Vicksburg location was supposed to stay at the main campus.
Public purchasing laws are prickly. They’re supposed to be. Taxpayers fork over boatloads of their money to finance higher education in the U.S., whether it’s paying their young adult child’s tuition or indirectly funding the Pell Grant system that, according to federal statistics, finances the education of more than 5 million full- and part-time students nationwide.
A little respect for how public dollars are going to be spent will go a long way in restoring Alcorn’s credibility as an institution of higher learning.

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