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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

With higher ed budget still up in the air, crisis isn't over at USF



With a final higher education budget still being hammered out between the House and the Senate, the university that blanketed the Capitol in phone calls and e-mails a couple weeks ago following the Senate's disproportionate spending recommendations remains on edge. 

Even though the joint budget the chambers are now working on includes a smaller cut to the state university system than the Senate originally wanted -- $300 million versus $400 million -- universities would still be expected to use reserve funds to cover the one-time losses. That, USF leaders say, would be catastrophic.

"There's too much talk as if those reserves are just cash sitting around that one day we might have a use for," said USF Board of Trustees chairman John Ramil at a meeting Thursday.

In the last few years, as state funding for universities has dropped 25 percent, universities have started saving extra dollars and using them for needs not covered because of budget cuts. That includes deferred maintenance on buildings, summer school, and adjuncts to cover for departed faculty members.

"It's been necessary to get more out of every dollar," Ramil told the board. "And we're now being punished."

The board got an update from USF lobbyist Mark Walsh, who told them that it's still unknown how the House and Senate will eventually spread those $300 million cuts. In the House's original spending plan, a historical formula was used to disperse the cuts evenly among all the universities. The Senate's formula was another story.

Senate budget chairman JD Alexander said he divvied up those cuts based on universities' reserve balances. But USF, which got the largest cut, does not have the largest reserve. That was a key reason for USF's fury. 

Three amendments filed by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, gave USF back $33 million in the Senate's budget, but it's not yet clear how that will play out in the final budget.

Another key question: whether the House and Senate will agree to split off the USF Polytechnic campus -- a move pushed fervently by Alexander. A conforming bill slipped into the Senate's budget would sever the campus immediately, with USF retaining USF Poly's faculty, staff and students; and the money for USF's pharmacy school, which previously came to USF Poly, going away, too. 

Two other amendments Norman filed would give USF back $10 million of the $18 million it says it needs to absorb those personnel costs, and $3 million of the $6 million USF needs for its pharmacy school. Those have not yet been considered by the House.

Walsh told the board that budget conferences would likely continue through the weekend, possibly wrapping up by Monday or Tuesday in time for the Legislative session's end on March 9.

[Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 11:36am]


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