Tuesday, October 16, 2018

As USF consolidation debate nears, Pinellas representative bolsters regional control

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.

Comments
Florida education news: Sales tax, scholarships, ballot language and more

Florida education news: Sales tax, scholarships, ballot language and more

SALES TAX: With limited funding, the campaign for a Hillsborough County schools sales tax increase relies on parent volunteers to get the word out. If approved, the revenue will pay for air conditioning repairs, among other construction and main...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Amendment 8 ballot language was ‘defective,’ Florida Supreme Court rules

Amendment 8 ballot language was ‘defective,’ Florida Supreme Court rules

The Florida Supreme Court removed Amendment 8 from the November 6 ballot because it failed to inform voters of its true purpose, the court stated in its opinion on the matter, released Monday."That the ballot summary is unclear is best demonstrated b...
Published: 10/15/18
Scholarship letters begin circulating for bullied Florida students

Scholarship letters begin circulating for bullied Florida students

Fifteen days after their official launch, Florida's new tax credit scholarships for students who claim being bullied in public school have begun being offered.Families that report any of 13 types of incidents, as outlined in law, are gettin...
Published: 10/15/18
When do Florida schools take buses off the roads?

When do Florida schools take buses off the roads?

35 miles per hour.That's the wind speed at which the Florida Department of Education has recommended school districts start pulling buses off the road, for safety's sake.The department sent the message to districts as Hurricane Michael churned n...
Published: 10/15/18
Florida education news: Union leaders, hurricane recovery, superintendent reviews and more

Florida education news: Union leaders, hurricane recovery, superintendent reviews and more

UNION LEADERS: Florida Education Association delegates ousted union president Joanne McCall in favor of challenger Fed Ingram, who had been vice president. Ingram's arguments that the group should be more aggressive in its push against the Repub...
Published: 10/15/18
Florida Education Association elects new leadership

Florida Education Association elects new leadership

Frustrated by three years of failed attempts to fight legislative actions deemed unfriendly to teachers, Florida Education Association members on Friday ousted the group's leadership team in favor of challengers who pledged to "rebuild our power...
Published: 10/13/18
ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of Oct. 7, 2018

ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of Oct. 7, 2018

With elections less than a month off, Floridians have focused attention on who will be the people setting education policy for the next two or four years. They’re homing in on policy positions such as teacher pay, tax rates and school safety, a...
Published: 10/13/18
It’s been a tough few years for Florida teachers. Will a new union leader shake things up?

It’s been a tough few years for Florida teachers. Will a new union leader shake things up?

Top education leaders have spent years pleading, lobbying and rallying at the state capitol, but Tallahassee lawmakers keep making life harder and harder for Florida's public school teachers.The Florida Education Association advocates for the state's...
Published: 10/12/18
Class size concerns rise in Pasco County schools

Class size concerns rise in Pasco County schools

Reacting to cramped and crowded classrooms, a Fivay High School student created a 5-minute video depicting the situation and urging Pasco County communities to "take action."The video, which aired in the school news report and is posted on the school...
Published: 10/12/18
Florida education news: Teacher pay, school security, storm damage and more

Florida education news: Teacher pay, school security, storm damage and more

TEACHER PAY: State Sen. Kevin Rader says he will refile his bill to set Florida minimum teacher pay at $50,000. It's a key piece of Democrat Andrew Gillum's education platform in his campaign for governor. Rader predicts if Gillum wins, the meas...
Published: 10/12/18