Monday, September 24, 2018

USF consolidation proposal advances another step in Florida House

A major higher education bill that would consolidate the University of South Florida System has just one committee hurdle left before advancing to the Florida House floor.

The 52-page bill makes sweeping changes to the state's merit scholarship program as well as performance-based university funding. Only on the final few pages does a controversial provision appear that would phase out the separate accreditation at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, bringing them under one umbrella with USF Tampa.

Because the USF proposal doesn't have a predicted budget impact, the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee skimmed past it while discussing the larger higher education bill. Up next is the Education Committee, which will likely dig into the proposal before it heads to the floor.

While House Bill 423 sails through the Legislature, opposition in St. Petersburg and broader Pinellas County has grown louder. Defenders of USF St. Petersburg say that separate accreditation acted as a safeguard against Tampa authority, allowing them to make decisions about their budget, faculty and degree programs (though Tampa still retained the final say). Without accreditation as a shield, these campus loyalists say, USF St. Petersburg could once again become an afterthought, drained of resources.

The proposal's backers say the intention is the exact opposite. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, wants USF St. Petersburg to benefit from the preeminence honor and bonus funding that USF Tampa will soon receive. Uniting the schools spreads the wealth, he has said.

USF Tampa leaders support the idea, stressing that St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee will have equal representation as the System plans the potential (but increasingly likely) merger.

Still, nearly all of Pinellas County's leadership has emerged to contest the proposal, or at least to urge the Legislature to slow down. Those voices include the city council and county commission, the St. Petersburg mayor, the St. Petersburg chamber of commerce, the Pinellas County Economic Development Council, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and the retired faculty group at USF St. Petersburg. Some students are planning to host a protest.

The exceptions are Rep. Sprowls and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

Read more: USF President Genshaft first learned of consolidation idea last fall

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