Student fees earmarked for unpublished yearbooks part of contested surplus fund at Southern University

LOUISIANA — Southern University plans to produce a “megabook” to make up for five school years’ worth of missed yearbooks, which were the subject of an auditor’s report released last week.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor found that no books had been published since the 2007-08 school year, except one documenting that year that came out in 2011, according to the investigative audit released on July 3.

Students had paid advance fees for the books. Revenues collected from July 2008 to June 2012 totaled more than $800,000, according to the report. That money is part of a student media surplus fund at the school, the control of which is currently being contested by student media and members of the university.

The auditor found that the delays were prompted by “the loss of a professional staff employee who encouraged the students to timely produce the yearbook,” as well as the resignation of two editors-in-chief.

“It’s a shared blame so to speak,” said Edward Pratt, the school’s director of media relations. “The administration is part of the issue because we did not put a person in place as an adviser to make sure that the books came out, and then the students didn’t produce the book either.”

The school hired a new student media director last August. Pratt said the “megabooks” will be released in October.

“Everybody who did not get a book when they were supposed to will get one,” Pratt said. “We will find them.”

Southern University’s student newspaper, The Southern Digest, and the university’s student government association are currently in a struggle over hundreds of thousands of dollars that have accumulated in a student media surplus fund. That fund includes money from the salaries that would have gone to an assistant director and director during years the positions were vacant, as well as unspent money from student-assessed fees (including the $816,903 in yearbook revenues cited in the auditor’s report) and excess funds from the operating budget.

In April, the student government association passed a referendum to take 40 percent of the funds, which total more than $1.5 million, and put them toward scholarships, campus improvements and service initiatives.

Caesar Smith, a columnist for the university’s student newspaper, and other student media members spoke at a meeting of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors on June 28 to protest the transfer of funds before a vote was held.

The board voted 12 to four in favor of the transfer, Smith said.

Student media members still plan to fight the transfer of funds, Publications Assistant Fred Batiste said.

Pratt said that situation “has no effect on whether we can produce the books” and that there is “more than enough money” to produce them.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.