Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

USF St. Petersburg grapples with 25 percent budget cut

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ST. PETERSBURG — Tallahassee lawmakers have chopped USF St. Petersburg's budget for the past four years — but never like this.

In one fell swoop, $5.1 million is expected to be slashed from the university's budget as part of the 20 percent cut to the university system agreed upon by the state Legislature.

USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Margaret Sullivan spent Wednesday in meetings with financial advisers assessing the impact of the Legislature's decision.

The school is set to incur a 25 percent budget cut, not including projected extra revenue from tuition. That's the third-largest hit of the state's public universities after USF Sarasota-Manatee and Florida State University.

"We are disappointed that USF St. Pete took one of the largest cuts in the state university system,'' Sullivan said. "It limits student services for a growing residential campus, including hiring new faculty to educate our students.''

The school, which has seen a 40 percent reduction in state-appropriated funding over the past four years — a loss of about $11.3 million — does not anticipate any layoffs or pay cuts, Sullivan said.

But hiring will be impacted, as will the university's ability to meet the demands of its growing student body, school officials said. Currently, about 6,000 full- and part-time students are enrolled, according to spokesman Tom Scherberger.

The inability to recruit and hire quality instructors worries USF St. Pete students like Colleen Hartman, 20, a junior.

"The Florida education system is horrible as it is; these cuts definitely won't help anything," she said. "They can't just keep cutting and cutting — eventually there won't be a school left."

Tallahassee leaders struck a budget deal Monday that included the creation of a new state polytechnic university in Lakeland, a priority of departing Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, with lawmakers agreeing to cover much of the cost associated with setting up a separate Florida Polytechnic University, which will become the state's 12th university.

After weeks of fighting the Legislature's initial budget cuts, USF president Judy Genshaft said the system prevailed. She understands the branch campuses' frustrations.

"Nobody wants to take any cuts," Genshaft said, noting that even though USF Tampa's cut was reduced from the original Senate plan, it's still tough to swallow. But she said it's only fair that all of the USF system share in the pain.

The $5.1 million reduction was a setback for USF St. Petersburg, where officials will be forced to dig into reserves, delay campus maintenance work and cut back on the university's literal rainy-day fund.

It "threatens our hurricane-preparedness efforts," Sullivan said. USF St. Petersburg's waterfront campus is in the city's first evacuation zone if a hurricane were to threaten the area.

Sullivan added that she hopes legislators consider how cutting funding to education may impact other aspects of the state's vitality.

"USF St. Petersburg is a key economic driver for the entire Tampa Bay area,'' the chancellor said. "The importance of higher education in Florida should be reviewed by all elected officials in the state.''

On Wednesday, USF St. Petersburg student Josh Levy said he could not understand the cuts his school will have to absorb. "I don't know why such a small school is being hit so hard," said Levy, 19, a freshmen.

Hartman said she'd be willing to pay more in tuition if it helped lure top professors to USF St. Petersburg, but Levy is concerned about rising tuition.

Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

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