As USF consolidation debate nears, Pinellas representative bolsters regional control

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. Times files.
Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. Times files.
Published February 27 2018
Updated February 27 2018

It wasn't the outright pause many leaders in Pinellas County wanted.

Still, a Pinellas representative sought to appease local concerns about a University of South Florida System merger on Tuesday by writing in protections for regional campuses.

An 11-page amendment brought by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, doesn't change the mandate that USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee phase out their separate accreditation and unite with USF Tampa in the coming years. But it does outline provisions for local campuses to control their budgets and leadership and presses USF to be transparent about funding.

The protections may help soothe some USF St. Petersburg loyalists who worry that a merger would erode the school's hard-won autonomy.
But it won't win over everyone.

"I'm concerned that we're rushing into this before we've had a chance to hear from our community," Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, told the House Education committee, holding up letters from local groups who have asked the Legislature to slow down. A member of the St. Petersburg Chamber later echoed him.

Diamond found some sympathy as he urged members to hold off on the merger for a year while the potential effects are studied more deeply. In Pinellas County, a chorus of blindsided civic and business leaders have decried the plan, recalling the days when they said USF St. Petersburg had to claw for resources from Tampa administrators.

But the committee wasn't swayed. They pressed forward, adopting Ahern's amendment and sending House Bill 423 to the floor.

"I can't see the downside that they see," Ahern said about critics, adding: "I know it never goes far enough, according to those that would like to hit pause."

The USF consolidation takes up just a few of the bill's many pages, but it has become a flashpoint in Tampa Bay.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has said the proposal will lift up St. Petersburg and Sarasota as USF Tampa ascends to preeminence, with all of the extra state funding the honor entails. As one university, he said, the prestige, programs and wealth will be shared among all students.

Some lawmakers questioned the proposal's speed.

"I don't see the harm in allowing a year for people to really think about this, since this is not something that came to our communities before session," said Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota.

Replied bill sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero: "If we delay this for a year, then that's a year of that additional money that's going to come to USF not reaching the branch campuses."

Plus, Rodrigues said, USF System President Judy Genshaft and the state higher education board both approve.

After conversations with Pinellas leaders, Ahern crafted the amendment with an eye toward transparency and autonomy.

The amendment would set up a task force with a wide-ranging membership and an even broader list of responsibilities, which underscore the monumental shift that could soon be facing the USF System. Members would be asked to consider the very identity of the regional campuses. How can USF maintain the unique identities of its campuses as one university? Should each campus have its own educational mission?

The group would be asked to make recommendations from academic programs to budgets. For instance, it would have to identify programs in health, science and other top-shelf fields to be developed in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. It would make recommendations on student fees, college access, integrated programs and melded faculty governance. It would tackle research development and faculty across campuses, and set timelines for implementation.

The amendment says that USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee would retain their names, and that campus boards would hold onto the authority to craft their own budgets and operating plans — subject to the approval of the main USF board.

As a bonus, USF St. Petersburg could get to claim the respected College of Marine Science, which now belongs to USF Tampa despite its location in St. Petersburg.

The amendment includes some accountability measures, requiring the USF board to publish a "biennial regional impact report" on funding and programs in Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee counties. The board would have to detail specific investments in those counties, from academic programs to research and capital projects.

Ahern said that, in future conversations, he'd also like to see whether St. Petersburg can get more representation on the USF board of trustees. But he said he was glad the bill is moving forward, despite critics who he said may never be pleased.

"Postponing it may just be their way of making it go away altogether," Ahern said. "I'd rather see them working with us to make sure they get more representation going forward in all things USF."

Catch up on Times coverage of the potential consolidation so far.

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