Advertisement
  1. Education

In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

A view of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, which again would be directed from the main USF campus in Tampa under a new proposal in the Florida Legislature. Proponents say the change could prompt Tampa leadership to share more resources with USF's regional outposts, benefiting students who might otherwise be shut out of certain programs or initiatives. But St. Petersburg leaders, who have watched the St. Petersburg campus struggle for power over the decades, reacted with skepticism. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published Jan. 17, 2018

In the state capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers breezed through the bullet points of a higher education bill. They skimmed past a hot-button proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System into a single university without a peep of pushback.

In St. Petersburg, frustration simmered. Local leaders wondered how, exactly, the city's fiercely independent university would benefit were it to be reabsorbed by USF's headquarters in Tampa. In many eyes, the small waterfront campus at USF St. Petersburg was gathering momentum. Why change course?

At a ribbon cutting, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he and chamber of commerce leader Chris Steinocher talked about the proposal, trading tales of bewilderment.

"I'm very disappointed that I learned about this from the paper as opposed to receiving any kind of outreach from USF," Kriseman said. On an issue of this magnitude, he said he would have expected a call from USF System president Judy Genshaft or someone on her staff.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

But the university wasn't consulted on the bill, say USF officials and sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. Rodrigues said he expects to have those talks now that the bill is on the table.

The idea came to Rodrigues, he said, as he worked on the House version of a massive higher education package. He was pondering tweaks to the state's preeminence program, which rewards top-performing universities.

USF Tampa will soon get that bonus funding, but because of their separate accreditation, USF St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee won't benefit.

"Our concern from the student perspective is there is no incentive for USF to share the resources that preeminence is going to bring to them beyond the borders of the Tampa campus," Rodrigues said in committee. "We want all students within the USF family to benefit from the preeminence that is coming."

Plus, since USF is the only state university with separate institutions, consolidation would bring it in line with its peers.

The bill would have USF develop a plan to phase out accreditation in St. Petersburg and Sarasota by 2020, bringing all operations under one Tampa umbrella, as in earlier days.

Then, to compete for preeminence, USF would be scored on all students, not just Tampa's.

St. Petersburg leaders, who have watched their campus struggle for power over the years, were skeptical.

"When you look historically at the way that campus was treated when it did not have the autonomy it has currently, for the most part, it was pretty ignored," Kriseman said. He called the proposal "a real setback."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How a small campus grew into an independent USF St. Petersburg

The St. Petersburg school has blossomed in recent decades, but particularly since gaining separate accreditation in 2006. Fundraising and growth have boomed as the university has become a first choice for some students. It admits its own students, gets separate state funding and can develop its own programs.

Yet the issue of self-governance has persisted. This summer, the ouster of the campus's popular leader, Sophia Wisniewska, reignited questions among some professors about Tampa's motives.

"It's very clear that there are some inherent complications with the main campus," said former City Council member Karl Nurse. "If the Legislature is interested in a campus that is growing and educating more students, they should just leave it alone."

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch worried about losing a university committed to Pinellas needs.

"I'm trying to understand what problem this legislation is meant to solve because, in my view, USF St. Petersburg is a rising star," he said.

Commissioner Charlie Justice agreed: "The fact that they're taking this action without community input is incredibly troubling."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he's watching the bill closely to understand the House's perspective.

Some leaders wondered whether the sudden absence of powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala, an advocate for the St. Petersburg campus, had opened the door to its potential takeover.

Others — such as Kriseman, a former legislator — suspected that USF administrators played a role.

"My experience is that something like this doesn't typically happen unless somebody at the university wants it to happen," the mayor said.

State Rep. Chris Sprowls, who advocated for the provision, said he hasn't spoken to Genshaft, but has talked with community leaders and policy experts.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: From the archive — USF St. Petersburg's long journey to autonomy

"This is a common sense initiative that affords St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee the opportunity to have a preeminent university in their backyard," Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, wrote in a text message. "Of course we welcome all feedback."

The bill now moves to the House's higher education appropriations committee, then the education committee.

"It's amazing to me how often this bad idea keeps coming back to life," said retired Sen. Don Sullivan, a fierce advocate of St. Petersburg independence. He wistfully recalled his own effort in 2000 to sever the campus from USF entirely — an attempted coup that failed by one vote.

"The natural instinct of the Tampa campus to dominate the curriculum and to dominate the control of the budget resulted in Sarasota and Pinellas county getting short shrift," he said. "I wish we had the University of St. Petersburg."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    Department of Education attorneys say the lower courts ruled properly in tossing the case.
  2. Pasco County School Buses. Times (2018)
    The School Board also approved a student calendar for 2020-21, with Aug. 10 as the first day of classes.
  3. Enterprise Village in Largo is celebrating 30 years this month. The facility, which provides hands-on education about economics, has served generations of children across the Tampa Bay area. In this photo from Nov. 7, fifth-graders from Safety Harbor Elementary School begin their day at the village. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    More than 400,000 kids in the Tampa Bay region have gone through the program, which offers a hands-on look at the free enterprise system.
  4. Students at Dunedin Elementary welcomed teacher Stephanie Whitaker back to campus the morning after she was named Pinellas Teacher of the Year in February 2012. The 2019-20 winner will be announced Jan. 29 at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Ten finalists have been selected. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  5. Florida dropped one spot to 45th on the National Education Association's annual list of average teacher salaries. [National Education Association]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  6. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2018)
Hernando County School District Headquarters, Brooksville
    The district has also promised to look for ways to bring insurance costs down for 2021 and beyond.
  7. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (far right) and her dog Alcaldesa joined students from Rampello K-8 Magnet School on a Nov. 14 walk across the school's newly-painted crosswalk, located at the intersection of Jefferson and Washington streets in downtown Tampa. CITY OF TAMPA  |  City of Tampa
    Hundreds of transportation and public safety advocates from across the country brought their ideas to Tampa for the Safe Routes to School National Conference.
  8. Colleen Beaudoin is selected Pasco County School Board chairwoman for 2020, and Allen Altman is named vice chairman. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff
    Altman chosen as vice chairman.
  9. Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) STEVE CANNON  |  AP
    He’s got a new voucher proposal, as well.
  10. Pasco school bus drivers are among those school-related employees who would get a 3.25 percent raise under a tentative contract agreement for 2019-20.
    District, union attention now turns to teacher contracts.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement