Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

USF St. Petersburg is among winners in higher education budget

TALLAHASSEE — Under a budget deal announced Monday, Florida universities will share more than $250 million in state funding for building projects, including $8 million for a business school at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The plan includes $10 million to expand a college of engineering shared by Florida State University and Florida A&M University that just days ago seemed headed for separation.

All told, universities will see an increase of nearly $83 million for construction projects next year compared with the current year. That includes $41 million from capital improvement fees that students pay.

The state funding is still subject to votes by the entire Legislature before it goes to Gov. Rick Scott. It includes $58 million for maintenance and renovation of existing buildings and $156 million to begin or complete construction of new buildings.

Meanwhile, the state's 28 community colleges will share $108 million, including $92 million for new construction, compared with $42 million last year.

Sophia Wisniewska, regional chancellor of USF St. Petersburg, said the new business school funds are "great news'' for an institution eager to move forward. "It will give us the synergy and the connectivity that we want," she said.

The school will be built on vacant land the university owns at Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue S. Currently, students take classes in three buildings; faculty have offices in four.

The new allocation, combined with last year's $5 million, means that USF St. Pete now has about half of the projected cost of $27.3 million.

"We now have enough to sign the construction contract," said Wisniewska, adding that a design plan is under way, and ground breaking is anticipated for the fall.

"It really highlights the fact that USF St. Petersburg has come into its own," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "The community has really gotten behind this project, and it was an easy project to show that it was worthwhile."

On the main campus in Tampa, USF Health received another $15 million for its Heart Health Institute, bringing its total from the Legislature to $35 million for the five-story, 100,000-square-foot facility that broke ground in December. According to USF lobbyist Mark Walsh, the project still will require another $15 million, some of which will be requested next year from the Legislature.

The school also received $5 million to plan for a new building for the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

All but one of the state's 12 universities — Florida Atlantic — received construction dollars. The University of Florida will receive $30 million for a chemistry and chemical biology building and a student study building. Florida International University is allocated $5 million toward completion of its student academic center and $10 million to begin the process of relocating the Miami-Dade County Fair and acquiring land near the Modesto Maidique Campus in Miami.

Florida State will get $20 million for its Earth Ocean Atmospheric Sciences building while FAMU was awarded $10 million to expand its pharmacy college.

The $10 million budgeted for the engineering program in Tallahassee shared by FSU and FAMU will help expand a 32-year-old partnership that recently seemed in peril. Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican rumored to be interested in leading FSU, inserted $13 million into the Senate budget to help create a separate engineering program for FSU.

House leaders never agreed to the plan and lawmakers eventually compromised with a $500,000 study that gives the state Board of Governors, which oversees universities, final say on the future of the engineering school. The study is due by January and the board would have to make a decision by March

Thrasher's $13 million is off the table, but he said it still served a purpose.

"I'm happy about that," he said. "We would never have had the conversation about (separating the schools) if we had not put the money in."

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