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Plan to split FSU-FAMU engineering school stirs political waters

Published Apr. 21, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — An effort by Florida State University and its well-connected allies to get its own engineering school could be turning into an election-year liability for Gov. Rick Scott.

Not only would the plan cost millions of dollars, it also would mean splitting up FSU's joint school with nearby Florida A&M University, an idea that is stirring outrage among supporters of the state's historically black university and others worried about the fallout.

"Governor — you need to put an end to this idea," Duval County Republican Party Chairman Rick Hartley wrote in an email to Scott outlining his opposition to the engineering school split.

"We are trying to communicate your strong message of job growth to the black community, but this is seen as a direct slap in their face," Hartley wrote.

The engineering school plan was introduced by Sen. John Thrasher, who is chairman of Scott's re-election campaign and is widely considered a front-runner for president of FSU. He added a $13 million line to the Senate budget just to start the process of splitting up the school.

The joint program with FAMU was created in 1982 after both Tallahassee schools applied for engineering colleges, but FSU supporters believe a separation would improve their university's national profile.

Scott has not said whether he would veto the funding. Last year, the governor rejected education budget items that did not follow the established review process or were not on the state Board of Governors' project list. The FSU item meets neither criteria.

"Once the budget is passed (by the House and Senate), our office will review all budget items to ensure the needs of Florida families are best met," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said Friday.

Before the budget lands on Scott's desk, the Florida House has to decide whether to go along with the Senate plan.

"Funding for a separation of the FAMU-FSU engineering school was not a part of the House budget or part of our committee discussions," said Kathy Mears, House Speaker Will Weatherford's chief of staff.

House and Senate leaders will meet to iron out their budget differences during the final two weeks of the session.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has not said whether he will support the split. In the past, he has defended the autonomy of the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities.

The board was taken by surprise when Thrasher's proposal became public April 2.

A group of about 30 FAMU students made the rounds in the Capitol one recent afternoon, stopping to meet with Senate budget chief Joe Negron, Mears and others to voice their opposition.

FAMU president Elmira Mangum believes there is no need for two engineering schools, but if the decision is made, she will seek resources so her university can keep its program strong.

What's needed is to "do the appropriate evaluation and have the appropriate collaborative discussions that would enable the state to make a wise decision," Mangum said. "And I think that wise decision would be that the state cannot afford to have two separate engineering programs."

Weatherford is not an alumnus of FSU like Thrasher, but his brother played quarterback for the football team and he considers himself an honorary FSU Seminole.

The House speaker is also close to his father-in-law, former Speaker Allan Bense, who is chairman of the FSU Board of Trustees. Bense has not spoken publicly about the engineering school issue either but is thought to be among those who support the plan.

School loyalties aside, the price tag alone could be enough reason for the House to oppose the idea, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan McManus.

The joint facility is surrounded by FSU property, and Mangum said that if FAMU must establish its own school, it would need to be on the FAMU campus. The projected cost: $100 million to build its own facility on its main campus.

Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or