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    10,000 amendment petition signatures lost

    Replacing them by Tuesday is crucial to getting a higher education proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 3, 2002

    With three days left to qualify for the November ballot, supporters of a plan to revamp higher education in Florida are scrambling to replace thousands of signatures they say are missing from the Broward County elections office.

    Supporters, led by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, said Broward election workers misplaced seven boxes containing 10,000 voter signatures that the group needs to get its proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot.

    "They got all the boxes," said Alice Skelton, the initiative's campaign manager who said she has Federal Express receipts showing the boxes were delivered months ago.

    Broward officials dispute that, saying Education Excellence for Florida didn't send the petitions.

    "We don't have those petitions. We've looked," said Mary Hall, the elections official in charge of the constitutional initiatives at the Broward supervisor's office.

    "If they were delivered, they would have been counted," said deputy supervisor Walter Foeman.

    The missing boxes are crucial in getting the proposal on the ballot.

    Education Excellence needs 488,722 signatures verified by Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline. The group turned in 650,000 signatures but only about 75 percent usually are deemed valid. That puts the group in the make-or-break range.

    "It appears to me at this time it is going to be close," said Carolyn Roberts, who heads the group opposing the proposal, Floridians for Education Reform. "I certainly want to defeat them but not this way."

    The problem was discovered late Wednesday when organizers of the initiative called elections officials to verify signatures as they have with every county. Broward officials confirmed about 112,000 signatures, not 122,000.

    On Thursday, an attorney for Education Excellence visited the supervisor's office. On Friday, Graham called.

    Skelton said the last-minute problem will not prevent the group from getting the proposal on the ballot. The state has confirmed 436,172 signatures so far.

    "Right now, we are just trying to get the number," Skelton said. "We believe we will get the number. We are going to see this thing in the ballot. It has come down to this."

    Education Excellence has spent almost $1-million to hire a political consultant whose paid workers collected most of the 650,000 signatures before July 1. Those same workers will be out this weekend in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to make up for the missing 10,000 signatures.

    Most Florida counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, verify the number of signatures sent to them before they begin the difficult task of validating individual signatures.

    But some South Florida counties, including Broward, count and verify signatures at the same time. So even though the elections office may have received the signatures months ago, they didn't realize that there was a discrepancy until this week.

    Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-led Legislature abolished the 36-year-old Board of Regents last year and gave oversight of the state's public universities to the Florida Board of Education, which has responsibility for education from kindergarten to postgraduate studies.

    The initiative seeks to revive a version of the Board of Regents but retain boards of trustees for individual universities.

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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