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Regents look to Bush for their future

State legislative leaders are backing a plan to abolish the board, but the governor is holding the wild card.

legislature 2000
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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- Backed by a powerful alliance of state legislative leaders on Tuesday, the proposal to radically change the way Florida governs schools may appear to be a done deal.

But Gov. Jeb Bush, who has the power to veto the plans, has yet to sign off on the most controversial changes: to abolish the Board of Regents and replace it with local boards at each state university.

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert opposes the changes, and Regents chairman Tom Petway has urged caution. Bush considers both men allies.

By Tuesday's end, Regent Phil Lewis wondered if the fanfare would amount to more than another round of legislative regent-bashing.

"Abolishing the Board of Regents has been an annual blood sport for years. It's either the Senate or the House," said Lewis, a regent who also served as state Senate president from 1978 to 1980.

"It just so happens that it appears as though all of them are ready to do (the regents) in this year."

The proposal, backed by Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker John Thrasher, would place public schools, community colleges and universities under one overarching "mega-board" of education.

Proponents say it's what voters asked for in 1998, when they approved an amendment to the state Constitution. The amendment eliminates the post of elected education commissioner in 2003 and allows the governor to appoint a new state board of education.

By approving the amendment, voters were in effect asking the governor to be more accountable for the state education system, proponents say. And that's what the "mega-board" would do.

"The voters have really given us a great opportunity," said Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher, who sits on the 14-member Board of Regents.

Currently, the public schools, community colleges and state universities operate independently and receive separate funding from the Legislature. All three are overseen by the governor and state Cabinet, which sit as the state Board of Education.

The governor also appoints the regents to oversee the universities, and another state board to coordinate the community colleges. The "mega-board" proposal eliminates both.

Yet even the loss of those patronage posts would not reduce the governor's power over the state's 10 universities. In fact, his power would increase. Besides appointing the "mega-board" itself, the governor also would appoint the local boards of trustees at each state school.

Local boards would allow communities to play a greater role in the selection of presidents and degrees offered at universities, Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala said Tuesday.

Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, is sponsoring the Senate version of the proposal.

Currently, the Board of Regents appoints university presidents. The process frustrated Latvala and other local leaders during the recent search for a new University of South Florida president.

Latvala disagreed with critics, including House Democratic leader Les Miller of Tampa, who said the "mega-board" proposal would be another "power grab" by Bush.

"I really don't see how we're doing a lot to centralize the power of the governor with this bill," Latvala said.

Petway, the regents chairman, released a written statement Tuesday in which he expressed caution about eliminating the regents and urged the Legislature to "carefully examine the ramifications of its proposal."

Bush sent Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan to Tuesday's unveiling, where Brogan expressed general support for the "mega-board" concept but not for eliminating the Regents.

Brogan said he talked with university system chancellor Herbert for 90 minutes Monday about the proposal. Herbert has spoken out against replacing the regents with local boards, which he says will lead to further "turf wars" among schools.

Herbert's opinion "means an extraordinary amount to both the governor and I," Brogan said at the news conference.

"The governor is trying to keep all of his options open."

- Times staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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