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  1. Florida Politics
  2. /
  3. The Buzz

Fight to merge Florida universities caused by Legislature’s own ‘boondoggle’

How did Florida get here? Remember JD Alexander, the former budget chair for the Florida Senate? Read on.
Former Sen. JD Alexander. [WALLACE, DANIEL | Tampa Bay Times]

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that proposes to merge Florida Polytechnic University and New College into the University of Florida has generated testy debate over finances and academics — but looming over all of it is the ghost of Legislatures past.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, says the amount of money the state pays for each student’s degree is much higher than average at both New College and Florida Polytechnic. He blames what he says are too-high administrative costs. But the schools’ four-year graduation rates and other statistics are also not up to snuff, he said shortly before the House Appropriations committee passed his bill earlier this week.

“Nobody ever wants their stuff to be cut,” Fine said. “I have done this using data because it’s what is right.”

But he also said that the original intent of creating Florida’s two newest universities was less than altruistic.

“They were political decisions driven by very powerful legislators at the time,” Fine said. “When we do things largely driven by politics they generally turn out to be mistakes.”

•••

It's true that both the schools were created as Florida's 11th and 12th public universities at the insistence of individual lawmakers wielding their clout.

Related: Senate votes to split off USF Polytechnic, creating 12th university

The more recent of those decisions was in 2012, when Florida Polytechnic was created by splitting it from the University of South Florida because of one powerful lawmaker, JD Alexander. He was Senate budget chairman at the time, which meant he had significant control over the Legislature’s purse strings, even just after a recession that caused historic cuts to Florida’s higher education system.

Alexander wanted Florida Polytechnic to become its own university because, he said, it wasn’t receiving enough care under USF. At the same time, his company owned a ranch that was right in the path of a proposed toll road that Alexander pushed to get built, making his land more valuable. Problem was there was no current need for the road, nor was it projected to have the traffic to make it feasible. A nearby university, however, promised a massive uptick in traffic — making the toll project more viable.

A Tampa Bay Times file graphic from 2012 shows the proximity of USF Poly to a proposed toll project pushed by then-Sen. JD Alexander, a grandson of Ben Hill Griffin Jr. [Tampa Bay Times]

The state earmarked $34.7 million in 2012, with Alexander driving the budget, in a spending plan to design a portion of what was then called the “Heartland Parkway.” The project was eventually nixed by the Florida Department of Transportation and former Gov. Rick Scott, but plans for a toll road with the same path as the Heartland Parkway were resurrected last year by Senate President Bill Galvano and passed the Legislature, despite environmental concerns.

Related: DeSantis approves Florida toll road projects, overcoming environmental concerns

This year’s debate over the merger bill prompted U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was in the state House at the time, to tweet about the creation of Florida Polytechnic, which he called a “boondoggle.”

“We have a bad habit in the Florida Legislature of giving retiring legislators a parting gift. And we gave one of them his own university,” Gaetz said about the tweet.

He said it was clear to lawmakers that the creation of the university was not a “higher education play” but one designed solely to spur economic development in a rural area of central Florida — something he hopes the current Legislature will remember.

"I'm a big fan of term limits but one consequence of term limits is we don't always have the richest context for how decisions were made a decade ago. This was a bad idea then and it's a bad idea now."

Alexander, reached by phone by the Times/Herald, said he did not have time to speak with a reporter and hung up.

In his tweet, Gaetz also called out now-Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who was also in the House at the time, for supporting the creation of the university.

Corcoran declined to comment.

Former Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican who’s now the tax collector for Pasco County, said the current discussion over the merger is proof that the split was a mistake. He was one of the few senators who voted against it.

"I don't want to say, 'I told you so,' but the bottom line is it should've never occurred," Fasano said. "We're not talking about paving a road or putting up a stoplight. We're talking about spending ... hundreds of millions of dollars."

•••

Polytechnic is allocated about $37 million annually for operations, and about $43 million was set aside for New College last year, including performance funding. Both schools also received money from the state when they were part of USF, though, so there’s not a clear way to calculate how much their independence cost the state. Those sums are also very small percentages of the entire university system budget, which is several billion dollars.

Polytechnic focuses on science, technology, engineering and math education and has about 1,300 students.

Sarasota's New College, the tiny, roughly 850-student university that specializes in a unique, liberal arts education, has a longer history. It was a private school until 1975, when it was financially struggling and the University of South Florida took it over. It remained part of USF until 2001 when the Senate president at the time, Sen. John McKay, made it a top priority to split it off.

Similarly, he said it was being neglected by the large USF administration and needed to be independent to flourish.

McKay faced resistance all the way up to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, but McKay attached the bill separating New College to one of Bush's priorities, a major overhaul of Florida's higher education governance system.

Former Sen. John McKay. [COLIN HACKLEY | Tampa Bay Times]

Even though he signed it, Bush foreshadowed one of the concerns of today’s Legislature back in 2001, when he wondered if independence would drive up New College’s per-student spending and whether that would raise the issue of fairness with other universities.

"How do you share those costs over a smaller number of students?" he was quoted as saying in the Tampa Tribune.

House Speaker José Oliva, was a House member in 2012. When asked whether this year’s merger bill is an admission that the Legislature made a mistake, said: “I don’t know it was failure of the Legislature. I will say, continuing to allow it would be a failure of the Legislature.”

Galvano was in between his House and Senate terms when Florida Polytechnic was created, but has said he's concerned about New College's financial viability if it remains independent.

“From my perspective, we just need to be the best stewards of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “If you have universities that are not meeting their thresholds and are having us come in and back-fill then that’s an issue.”

Still, it's extremely unclear how much would be saved by merging the two schools with the University of Florida. Fine said he did not have a cost analysis and would leave the details up to UF.

The merger question has also sparked serious concern from students, who are caught in the lurch of this political back-and-forth. They argue that they began attending these schools with the expectation that they’d earn their degrees from specialized, independent universities, not from the University of Florida.

Both the university presidents of Florida Polytechnic and New College have appeared in the Capitol to protest the changes. And several students of both schools have spoken during committee hearings.

Samantha Ashby, a 20-year-old sophomore at Florida Polytechnic studying mechanical engineering, pointed out to the House Appropriations committee how the bill doesn’t say anything about how the merger would affect their degree programs.

“One of the main points of Poly is we have those small class sizes that have hands-on experiences we wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere,” she said. “Current students are fearful.”

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