TALLAHASSEE — In the past two years, House Speaker Ray Sansom got $35-million in extra tax dollars for the college where he now works, an exceptional feat in tightening budget times.
But that may not have been his biggest gift to Northwest Florida State College.
Plotting behind the scenes with the college president who would become his boss, Sansom pushed legislation last spring that created a new, exclusive tier of local colleges that could offer an array of bachelor's degrees. Along the way, the pair arranged a secretive meeting that skirted Florida's Sunshine laws.
Nine of Florida's 28 community colleges were included in the program, which critics say was hastily arranged and could cannibalize funding for two-year schools while impeding the core mission of community colleges to open access to higher education for local residents.
Dozens of e-mails obtained by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reveal intense coordination between college president Bob Richburg and Sansom, a Destin Republican.
Sansom, serving as House budget chairman, seemed at once a lobbyist and a lawmaker for his friend, who championed the state college idea. He provided Richburg the kind of access that lobbyists and their clients crave.
Richburg coached Sansom, offering changes to the bill and pushing Sansom to bring home more money. "It's a pricey list … hopefully we can make it a reality," Richburg wrote on Feb. 26.
When then-House Speaker Marco Rubio seemed cool to a controversial proposal reorganizing the university system governance, Richburg tried to convey that other college presidents were concerned.
"The bottom line is a request for you to help shore up support of the speaker," Richburg wrote on March 28. "If I am meddling, forgive me — otherwise message delivered."
Sansom quickly replied, "I will get right on this."
Neither Sansom nor Richburg responded to numerous requests for an interview. Sansom asked for written questions and did not respond to those.
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The idea behind the state college legislation was simple: Create more four-year degree programs to meet shortages of teachers, nurses and other professions while allowing students with jobs and families to stay close to home.
The program was at first limited to three politically connected schools. They were St. Petersburg College, which was the first to offer bachelor's degrees in 2001; Richburg's Okaloosa-Walton College, as it was called then; and Indian River Community College, which had a strong ally in then-Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.
The bill caught some college presidents by surprise. It was not on a list of policy initiatives by the Department of Education and it set off a scramble by others wanting to get in on the special deal.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp lobbied successfully to include Edison College, near his hometown. South Florida lawmakers made sure Miami-Dade College made the cut.
"It felt like the whole thing was intended to surprise us and put us on our heels so we couldn't respond," said Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando, which is one of the nation's largest producers of associate's degrees.
While Shugart and others agree more bachelor's degree programs are needed, they want a broader approach. Shugart said the inclusion of nine schools was haphazard and "odd." His school wasn't among them.
"Nobody is going to move to Okaloosa to go to college," he said. "It's a 19th century solution and we have a 21st century problem."
But as the program expanded, support in the Legislature did, too.
On June 12, Gov. Charlie Crist traveled to the Niceville campus of Northwest Florida State College. A phalanx of elected officials and educators watched as Crist signed the bill and then handed the Sharpie to Sansom as a memento.
"We expect these programs to be more affordable and cost-effective than those at the state university level — and that's another benefit to both the taxpayers and the students," Sansom said at the time.
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Getting there wasn't easy. Beyond the flurry of e-mails and lobbying lawmakers, Sansom and Richburg set up a meeting of college trustees last March to sell them on the idea.
"Think about a meeting in Tall. with you, the trustees of (Okaloosa-Walton College), and me to talk about the proposed college change and the system questions," Richburg wrote Sansom on Feb. 12.
The two men then collaborated on a PowerPoint presentation Sansom would give the eight-member board. Sansom e-mailed the presentation to Richburg, who offered extensive feedback.
The meeting with trustees was scheduled for March 24, the day after Easter. As a public school, a meeting of the trustees must be open to the public, which requires advertising the time and place so people can attend.
The college did provide public notice, with an ad that was published one week before the meeting, in a newspaper in Okaloosa County, 150 miles from where the meeting would take place.
That was Richburg's idea: "It's probably the only way we can do it in privacy but with a public notice here," he wrote in his e-mail to Sansom.
Sansom's rapid response: "That would be great!! We can get a private room on the 6th floor at FSU."
An open government expert criticized the action. "I still think it's a problem regardless of the notice provided," said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for open government with support from newspapers. "Look at Richburg's statement, 'It's the only way we can do it in privacy but with public notice here' — seems to me that's a fairly clear statement of intent to avoid, as much as possible, public attendance and/or oversight."
Just before that meeting, Sansom and Richburg swapped e-mails over another matter. Richburg suggested that when they all were together, Sansom should thank the board for "accepting responsibility" for an emergency training center at Destin Airport.
A Times/Herald story last week raised questions about the airport project, funded by a $6-million appropriation Sansom steered to the college in the 2007 budget.
The project seems nearly identical to one proposed by Sansom's friend, developer and Republican donor Jay Odom. Odom sought state money for an emergency operations center at the airport that he could use to store his jets between disasters.
Odom wasn't able to secure funding for his project, but soon after, Sansom got money for a hangar-sized building at Destin Airport to be owned by the school. Odom's private airport manager said Odom planned to park jets in the building, but Odom disputes that. College officials insist the facility will be used to train emergency workers.
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Sansom's close ties to Richburg emerged three weeks ago when the speaker took a $110,000 job working for Richburg as vice president for planning at the college. There is speculation Sansom, 46, will take over as president in a few years and Sansom has done little to discourage such talk. He has said that's an issue to address later.
Since then, Sansom's record of getting state money for the school has surfaced. Besieged by newspaper editorials calling for him to quit the job, Sansom has denied a quid pro quo.
But the job, which was not advertised, was only offered to Sansom and it seems written to match the very programs he helped create. "Make recommendations to the college president on the transition to the State College System," reads one of his responsibilities.
Sansom has a master's degree in education and said getting state money for hometown institutions is common among lawmakers.
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The backdrop of the Sansom story is a state budget in crisis. The weak economy has dried up the flow of tax revenue, and now lawmakers face an enormous task in covering a cash shortage in the billions.
It may not have been a good time to launch a pilot program in the education system.
The chancellor of Florida's community college system, Will Holcombe, supports the new program that allows some community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees. But he worries that the traditional two-year schools will be competing for fewer dollars with the new, expanded colleges.
"It may well be we can't expand bachelor's access in the short term," Holcombe said.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.