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"Mega-board' plan: Centralize school control

State lawmakers likely will consider changes this spring that would dramatically alter the way Florida governs the education of students from kindergarten to college.

A special committee appointed by Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher is expected to recommend placing public schools, community colleges and the state university system under one overarching "mega-board" of education.

Top leaders, including Gov. Jeb Bush and Gallagher, have expressed interest in the plans, which would shift tremendous power to the executive branch.

But the idea is raising concerns in the state's higher education establishment. Community college and university leaders fear they could lose influence and control.

The plan could spark the biggest education debate in Florida since Bush pushed through his voucher plan last year. It has the support of a majority of Gallagher's special committee, a 37-member group composed of lawmakers, education leaders and business people.

If the plans become reality, "Florida will never before have seen an aggregation of power like this," said Michael Richardson, spokesman for St. Petersburg Junior College, which opposes the "mega-board" plan.

Currently, the public schools, community colleges and state universities operate independently and receive separate funding from the Legislature. All three are overseen by the governor and state Cabinet, which sits as the state Board of Education. The governor also appoints separate boards that set policies for the colleges and universities.

Instead, the "mega-board" would oversee everything.

Deputy commissioners, appointed by the governor, would administer the schools, colleges and universities and report to the "mega-board."

Proponents of the plan say eliminating the Board of Regents and the state Board of Community Colleges would simplify the education system and make the governor more accountable for changes.

A spokeswoman for Bush said he is open to all options.

"His ultimate goal would be to work towards a system that would provide a lifelong learning strategy from kindergarten through 12th grade, through the community college system and through the university system," said Liz Hirst, Bush's press secretary.

Supporters also see the potential to eliminate "turf wars" that erupt between the public school system and community colleges, for instance, or between the colleges and universities. Linking the branches could extinguish those battles before they begin, they say.

But others worry the "mega-board" plan would create new wars where none now exist. Under the plan, the governor would appoint a board of trustees at each university, similar to those that now govern community colleges.

Adam Herbert, chancellor of the state university system, questioned that change on Wednesday, noting the competition it would foster among universities.

"It makes more difficult the presentation of a coordinated strategy to address higher education needs, especially in this state, where politics are so woven into the higher education mosaic," said Herbert, who was selected by the Board of Regents.

Herbert's spokesman, Keith Goldschmidt, was more direct.

"Would it eliminate the turf wars," Goldschmidt asked, "or just move them to a different location?"

Community college advocates worry that setting education policy from kindergarten through the university level is too complex for one board.

"It's too big a job," said Richardson, of SPJC.

The change has been brewing since 1998, when voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that will eliminate the post of elected education commissioner.

When the amendment takes effect in 2003, the governor will appoint a state education board, approved by the state Senate, which would then hire an education commissioner.

_ Times staff writer Barry Klein contributed to this report.

WHAT WOULD BE ELIMINATED:

State Board of Regents

Current membership: 14 regents, including Education Commissioner.

Their job: sets policy for the state's 10 public universities.

Who appoints them: governor.

Board of Community Colleges

Current membership: 13, including Education Commissioner.

Their job: The board coordinates and oversees the operation of 28 locally controlled community colleges. It was established by the Legislature in 1983.

Who appoints them: governor.

Education Commissioner

Current member: Tom Gallagher.

Who selects him: elected by the voters, until 2003 when it becomes appointed by the governor.

State Board of Education

Current members: governor and Florida's Cabinet.

Their job: set education policy.

Who selects them: Florida's voters.

WHAT WOULD BE THE REPLACEMENT

State Board of Education

Its job: oversee education from kindergarten to universities. Implement policies set by the state Legislature. Hire education commissioner.

Who appoints them: governor.

University trustees.

Their job: Each university would have a board that would govern policy.

Who appoints them: governor.

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