Both Lowndes County representatives on the East Mississippi Community College Board of Trustees have announced they are stepping down.
Greg Stewart submitted his resignation to the Lowndes County supervisors this week due to his intent to retire from Aurora Flight Sciences, where he works as director of development. His last meeting as an EMCC trustee will be Sept. 13, and his email to supervisors says he is retiring this month from Aurora.
Stewart’s announcement follows fellow trustee Joe Max Higgins announcing last week he will step down from the EMCC board.
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, which appoints the county’s two EMCC trustees, has approved taking applications for both openings. So far, three applicants have applied, County Administrator Jay Fisher said, though he declined to identify the applicants upon request Tuesday.
Fisher said supervisors could appoint new trustees at its Oct. 4 meeting. The board will likely consider the whole pool of applicants for two appointments rather than have a separate pool for each vacancy, he said.
“We’ve never had this situation before where both were vacant at the same time, so we’ll need to get some clarification,” Fisher said. “But I would think if you were applying for one vacancy, you’re applying for both.”
Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin confirmed to The Dispatch he is one of the three applicants.
Gaskin holds a doctorate in community college leadership. In his application, which he shared with The Dispatch, he touted his more than 20 years of experience in education administration on both the college and secondary level. He previously served in fundraising capacities for Mississippi State University, the University of Alabama and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.
“I have a passion for promoting and insuring quality education at every age — for all walks of life,” he wrote in his application. “I also have a clear understanding of the importance quality education plays in the livelihood and success of a community. Because of my professional experience and educational background, I know and embrace the unique role community colleges play through workforce development, local economic development and vocational training.”
The county helps fund EMCC through designated property tax millage. The city does not.
‘Definite split’ on EMCC board
EMCC’s board consists of two members each from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay, Noxubee, Kemper and Lauderdale counties. EMCC’s main campus is in Scooba, but its Lowndes County footprint includes the Golden Triangle campus in Mayhew, the Communiversity Workforce Training Center on Highway 82 west of Columbus and Lion Hills Center, home to its golf and culinary arts programs, in Columbus.
Stewart was first appointed to EMCC’s board in March 2015 and was reappointed last year for a second five-year term.
In his time on the board, Stewart told The Dispatch, the college has “made some good changes in leadership.” He specifically mentioned Communiversity director Courtney Taylor and the college’s recently hired Chief Financial Officer Tammie Holmes among them.
“I think there are some other opportunities to improve the management,” Stewart added, though he would not elaborate.
Stewart said there is a “definite split” between the board members in the northern and southern counties. The Scooba campus, in Kemper County, tends to get much of the focus, he said, while historically the Golden Triangle campus boasts higher enrollment and generates more tuition revenue.
“These campuses have different needs and serve different focuses,” Stewart said. “I’d like to see a more even-handed approach (from the board).”
Making sure EMCC rights its financial ship also has been a concern for Stewart.
For example, the college’s operating fund balance declined by $10 million between Fiscal Years 2010 and 2018, with athletics outspending revenue by $1.14 million in 2018 alone. Football accounted for $895,000 of the athletics deficit that year, while being funded at $1.1 million.
The football program, which has won five national championships, still should be “funded at a level more commensurate with the school’s financial status,” Stewart said. Even looking closer to home at Lion Hills — which has long operated at steep deficits — he believes there are tough decisions to make.
“Lion Hills is losing money,” Stewart said. “How long can we allow it to lose money and how much lost money can we accept?”
In a speech to Columbus Rotarians last week, Higgins, too, was critical of football spending in giving his reasons for resigning. He also pointed to what he considered under-enrollment at the Communiversity — there are 160 students enrolled, and Higgins said that number needs to be closer to 240.
Stewart shares that concern.
“If we don’t use it, that’s to our detriment,” Stewart said of the Communiversity.
‘I hope it’s not all about football’
On Tuesday, District 5 Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks asked his fellow supervisors what qualities they were seeking in new EMCC trustees, noting “we’re losing two good people off the board.”
Brooks and District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders agreed the county’s EMCC appointees need to to come from industrial leadership — essentially trustees whose votes would support enhancing the Communiversity.
Brooks also referenced “issues” on the EMCC board he said are “very concerning,” seeming to echo concerns of both Higgins and Stewart.
“I don’t want to speak out of school,” Brooks said. “I like football, but I hope it’s not all about football.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.