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Universities get construction cash surprise

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO- VAN SICKLER
Published January 26, 2007


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BOCA RATON - The chancellor of Florida's university system says it will take as much as $3.4-billion to build the facilities colleges need to serve students in the future.

But in the short term, institutions like the University of South Florida are celebrating a larger-than-expected pot of construction money that will pay for new buildings starting next year.

Just a few months ago, the 11 state public universities got grim news: no money for new construction projects through 2010. The fund that pays for campus construction was expected to be so small that schools abandoned plans for any new buildings.

For USF, that meant putting off much-needed projects like a $9-million science facility at the St. Petersburg campus and a $62-million interdisciplinary science teaching center on the Tampa campus.

But those buildings and others were back on the table Thursday, thanks to a sunnier financial outlook for the next three years.

Universities are expected to get $517.6-million to cover construction and renovations for the 2007-08 year. That's $4.5-million more than the current year, and double what they thought they would get, based on state projections issued last fall.

New construction is crucial to Florida's fast-growing universities, which are bracing for as many as 50,000 additional students by 2012.

Their construction money comes from PECO funds, which are derived from taxes and gross receipts on electricity, fuel, and communications like cable and telephones. The money is divided among K-12 schools, community colleges and universities.

For years, it has failed to keep up with the education needs of Florida's booming student population. And the problem isn't going away.

For example, the universities' PECO share will likely shrink to less than $250-million in 2009 and 2010.

Chancellor Mark Rosenberg told the Board of Governors that at the current rate, PECO money will leave universities a decade behind where they need to be in terms of classroom and lab space.

He stressed the need for more efficient use of space - including weekend and summer classes - and for more renovations.

The universities have 6-million square feet of space that hasn't been remodeled in 25 years. So the board is seeking $123.8-million from the state to cover much-needed repairs. But universities need a lot more money to remain competitive and attractive to students, Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg estimates it could take as much as $3.4-billion to close the gap, and he plans to work with legislators to find "creative solutions" for funding such a construction boom.

For now, USF and other universities are thankful for a proposed construction list - still subject to legislative approval - that is far more generous than anticipated.

USF, the state's third-largest university, would get $69.5-million for construction and renovations, compared to an earlier proposal that provided less than $40-million.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 26, 2007, 01:02:29]


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