University overhaul closer to Nov. vote
By ALISA ULFERTS and STEVE BOUSQUET
TALLAHASSEE -- A proposal to create a board to run state universities moved a step closer Thursday to winning a spot on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously approved the wording of a proposed ballot initiative that seeks to undermine Gov. Jeb Bush's "seamless" approach to education.
Backers of the constitutional amendment, led by U.S. Sen Bob Graham, must collect thousands of signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
It is the second citizen initiative to gain the high court's approval in recent weeks. The other seeks to reduce class sizes. The court reviews citizen initiatives to ensure they deal with only one subject and are clearly explained.
Graham's plan would keep the new trustee boards Bush appointed for each university but add a 17-member Board of Governors to oversee the schools.
Bush, a Republican, led the effort that created a statewide Board of Education that oversees kindergarten through graduate school. Last week he signed a massive rewrite of the state education code that includes the new education governing system. It takes effect in January.
Graham, one of Florida's leading Democrats, says the state's new system will lead to greater political fighting among the universities and duplication of programs. He is critical of Bush, who is running for re-election as the education governor, and says the state is fostering a poor education system that threatens Florida's economic future.
"This is an opportunity for the citizens to make a decision about the quality and direction of our state universities," Graham said in a statement. The group has raised more than $500,000.
Bush learned of the court ruling just moments before he stepped into a meeting with the state's university presidents, who answer to the trustee boards that Bush appointed. The group's agenda then shifted to a discussion of how to defeat the amendment if it makes it to the ballot.
"We were asked to support the amendment, and we would not because we wanted to give reform a chance," said Anthony Catanese, outgoing president of Florida Atlantic University. Bush and the presidents talked about finding the perfect "sound bite" to convince voters things are better.
"I think we can all agree that our board of trustees are working fine," Catanese added.
Judy Genshaft, University of South Florida president, agreed. "I've been very pleased with local control," she said. "It's made a huge difference for the University of South Florida. It's given us a lot of flexibility. It's allowed us to move forward in a very positive way."
Lawmakers spent part of this month's special session updating the state's education laws to reflect those reforms, which melded kindergarten through grade 12, community college and university systems into one. Changing things back so quickly would leave students feeling "uprooted" and "shaken," the presidents said.
And for what? Bush has his ideas. "It's not all related to policy from the perspective of the proponents," he said cryptically.
Graham has denied playing politics with the initiative. His organization, the Education Excellence for Florida Committee, has presented 154,238 valid voters' signatures to the state, though committee director Alice Skelton said she has verified 171,000.
Graham needs nearly a half-million signatures and has collected just more than 450,000, Skelton said. Not all will be valid, though, and Skelton said the group is on schedule to have 600,000 signatures by June 15.
But the group's challenge doesn't end there. Under a law the Legislature passed during this month's special session, each question on the ballot must carry a price tag.
The state Revenue Estimating Conference, economic experts who calculate how much tax revenue the state will raise, must develop estimates of how much a citizen initiative will cost.
Skelton said her group is putting together some numbers for the analysis but said she didn't know how much the university board, called the Board of Governors, would cost.
"'I wouldn't even hazard a guess," Skelton said.
Rep. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican in charge of education spending for the House, said the measure would cost a lot.
"I'm sure it will have a major impact," Lynn said. "We've got all kinds of seamless programs going now and everytime you change something that costs money."
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