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School plans widen choices

Lawmakers say students will be winners from proposed changes at SPJC and USF.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


After tough negotiations that almost fell apart several times, local lawmakers Friday unveiled two separate plans they hope will refashion the higher education landscape in Pinellas County.

The first measure would provide residents in northern Pinellas greater access to nursing, education and technology degrees at a beefed-up St. Petersburg Junior College.

The other would provide the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida considerably more autonomy, including separate accreditation, its own governing board and budget independence.

"These are two separate issues, but they are tied together in how they help meet the education needs of the entire county," said state Sen. Don Sullivan, who said the big winners would be local students.

But there would be other winners, too -- assuming the plans survive the always treacherous legislative process.

USF President Judy Genshaft, for example, would have avoided the embarrassment of losing her largest branch campus during her first year as president.

By agreeing to give the campus an unprecedented level of autonomy, she secured Sullivan's promise to stop, at least for the time being, his attempts to make the school independent.

And it means SPJC President Carl Kuttler would have considerably more options for expansion. Sullivan, R-Seminole, said there is nothing in his plan that precludes SPJC from adding more degree programs in the future.

That fact is reflected in how Sullivan intends to remove "junior" from the school's title and make it a full-fledged college: specifically, St. Petersburg College and University Center.

Both plans leave key questions unanswered: How long would it be before the two schools are in direct competition? And might that lead to expensive and wasteful duplication?

"I think there is enough room for everyone," said Genshaft, who said the negotiations that led to USF's bill did not require any promises to support SPJC's plan.

Sullivan said Genshaft was consulted about SPJC's needs and desires and "had a part in the process." But he agreed there was no quid pro quo.

"I'd prefer that they support it, but I don't expect her to stand on the street corner and promote it," Sullivan said.

All sides agree the USF bill almost didn't happen.

It underwent at least eight major revisions in recent days. As late as 9 p.m. Thursday, it was unclear whether the scheduled news conference to announce it would have to be canceled, said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, the Pinellas Republican who brokered the deal.

Jeff Muir, USF's director of government relations, said both Sullivan and Genshaft had key points they were unwilling to concede.

For Genshaft, who will be formally inaugurated next week, the deal-breaker was complete independence. "The campus had to stay a part of USF," Muir said.

Sullivan insisted on separate accreditation, increased budget authority and the establishment of a local governing board, which he said would be more responsive to community needs.

Genshaft said she hopes the bill will end her first major headache with a "win-win" for everyone.

Sullivan, however, was careful to keep his promises conditional.

"For the time being, this satisfies me completely," he said. But he warned that could change in the future.

USF officials hope not. After Friday's announcement, they were talking about a future with 10,000 students in St. Petersburg instead of the current 3,600, with dormitories, additional faculty and much-enhanced degree offerings.

They said those goals would be much easier to achieve once the proposed changes unshackle the St. Petersburg campus from USF's Tampa-based administration, which makes most of the decisions on enrollment growth, program offerings and new construction.

The USF bill would make the St. Petersburg campus a separate entity from the Tampa campus, with its own budget, a new campus executive and a governing board composed of five Pinellas County residents.

The board would have the power to approve an annual legislative budget request that would be sent to the state commissioner of education. It also could submit an operating budget, which would be reviewed by the nine-member university board of trustees that is expected to oversee all of USF after the state Board of Regents is abolished.

The bill requires Genshaft to immediately seek separate accreditation for the campus, which some people think could lay the foundation for a new independence drive in the future.

It does nothing, however, to address another threat to USF: Senate President John McKay's belief that the university's Sarasota campus is not being adequately supported. That branch includes New College, USF's nationally recognized liberal arts program.

The nightmare scenario for USF is that McKay will attach a measure separating the Sarasota campus to the bill that protects the St. Petersburg branch.

McKay could not be reached for comment Friday.

"The Sarasota campus is under discussion, and it will continue to be discussed," Sebesta said. He said the compromise in St. Petersburg could provide a useful model for that problem.

Sullivan, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Education Appropriations subcommittee, expects little problem getting his SPJC plan approved. If he's right, SPJC would become the first community college in Florida authorized to offer four-year degrees.

He said that change would make it easier for residents, especially in north Pinellas, to earn degrees in education, nursing and technology, all of which are in high demand.

The first class of juniors and seniors would be admitted only to SPJC's Tarpon Springs campus. That would happen in August 2002, and could total as many as 500 students.

Sullivan conceded that some of the courses offered at SPJC would duplicate those provided by USF. But because those courses are being offered in Tarpon Springs, a considerable commute from USF's campuses in St. Petersburg and north Tampa, he doesn't consider that wasteful.

Sullivan was asked whether his willingness to compromise was spurred by the state's budget shortfall, which would make it difficult to justify the expense of converting the St. Petersburg branch into an independent school.

He said that had nothing to do with it.

The combined impact of the two plans, he said, "will do more to benefit the community than just spinning off the St. Petersburg campus."

- Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

Highlights of the proposals

USF's St. Petersburg campus would get greater autonomy, with separate accreditation and its own governing board and budget.

Four St. Petersburg-based programs would remain under the Tampa campus: College of Marine Science, Florida Institute of Oceanography, Pediatric Research Center and USF-U.S. Geological Survey facility.

St. Petersburg Junior College would become a full-fledged college with a new title, St. Petersburg College and University Center.

Starting in 2002, the college would offer four-year degrees to as many as 500 students in teacher training, nursing and technology at its Tarpon Springs campus.

Recent coverage

Trade-off to keep USF intact (February 16, 2001)

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