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Second vote kills Pinellas university

With two representatives changing their votes, plans for a four-year school for Pinellas - independent of USF - die in a House committee.

By SHELBY OPPEL and BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- By 9 a.m. Wednesday, state Sen. Don Sullivan thought he had resurrected his faltering effort to create a new public university in St. Petersburg.

Minutes later, all was lost.

The same House committee that had just approved the measure decided to vote again. This time, the lawmakers killed it.

Storming out of the meeting room, Sullivan noticed Herbert Polson, a representative of St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer.

"You just lost your entire university," Sullivan barked at Polson. "Your university's dead for the year."

Fischer opposes Sullivan's bill, which would sever the St. Petersburg branch campus from the University of South Florida and create an independent university run by its own board of directors.

In Pinellas County, where leaders have fought for years to gain more autonomy for the branch campus at Bayboro Harbor, the bill's defeat was greeted with mixed emotions.

Some warned the fight has only begun.

"We are going to continue to press for greater independence," said Michael Van Butsel, chairman of the St. Petersburg campus advisory board, which has used Sullivan's effort to pressure USF for changes.

His group recently approved a 17-point manifesto that called for almost complete autonomy for the branch campus. It included a warning that anything less would cause them to shift their support to an independent school.

"They need to understand in Tampa that the mood here remains very serious," Van Butsel said.

Fischer said he couldn't support Sullivan's bill because it called for St. Petersburg Junior College to provide all freshmen and sophomore courses at the new school. The mayor was one of several leaders who last year helped secure state permission for USF to begin admitting freshmen to the St. Petersburg campus. The school expects to enroll 105 freshmen this fall, up from 50 last year.

But Fischer said the branch needs to grow, and not at the slow pace preferred by USF officials.

"It is time to get the student population up," he said. "It is time to serve all the people in Pinellas County who want to go there."

Sullivan's bill still has a faint heartbeat. He said he expects the Senate to approve the proposal. But it can't travel to Gov. Jeb Bush's desk without the House's go-ahead.

After Wednesday's vote, chances are slim that House leaders will revive the measure before the Legislature adjourns May 5.

"I think Pinellas residents are going to have to realize they will always be hat-in-hand to the University of South Florida in Tampa," said Sullivan, R-Seminole.

In its original form, the proposal also would have spun off USF's Sarasota campus and the Davie branch of Florida Atlantic University in Broward County.

In recent weeks, USF officials have been warning backers of Sullivan's plan to be careful what they wish for.

A new university would need several years to earn accreditation, which means the first few classes would be earning diplomas with considerably less value than those issued by USF.

And many professors at the St. Petersburg campus have made it clear they would go elsewhere if the campus was spun off.

"A recipe for mediocrity," is how interim USF President Richard Peck described the plans to the committee before Wednesday's vote. Last week, Peck promised the St. Petersburg dean a direct say in how the school spends its budget, one of several concessions made to thwart Sullivan's efforts.

Sullivan's bill has changed shape several times since early March, as various legislators added and subtracted their counties from consideration. First, it called for four new universities -- in Pinellas, Sarasota, Broward and Indian River counties.

Indian River eventually pulled out, and Volusia County joined on. Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, added language that would have spun off the Volusia branch of the University of Central Florida to create "Halifax University."

Last week, a House committee derailed Sullivan's plans by approving an amendment to put them off another year.

But Wednesday, the proposal resurfaced in the House Education Appropriations Committee, after Sullivan's negotiations with committee chairman Rep. Stephen Wise.

Sullivan, who heads the Senate committee that writes the education budget, is Wise's counterpart in that chamber.

"(Sullivan) was very, very generous to me during the budget process," Wise said last week.

Asked whether his committee would restore Sullivan's bill to its original form, Wise said: "I suspect that we will make it right."

And the committee did, at least at first.

By a 6-5 vote, the committee approved an amendment that restored Sullivan's plans. This time, Rep. Debby Sanderson, R-Fort Lauderdale, withdrew FAU and Broward County from the mix; new schools in Pinellas, Sarasota and Volusia counties remained.

Sullivan left the room satisfied. A few minutes later, he rushed back in. Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, had made a motion to reconsider the vote.

Greenstein and Rep. Ken Sorensen, R-Key Largo, had initially voted for Sullivan's plans. This time, they flip-flopped -- killing the bill 7 votes to 4.

Inadvertently, that vote killed a substitute plan to study the issue before lawmakers reconvene next year. Later, Greenstein and Sorensen said they did not mean to defeat the study also.

Once lawmakers realized they had killed the study, Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, made a final motion to revive it. It was left pending as the meeting time ran out, and Rep. John Rayson, D-Pompano Beach, moved to adjourn.

The Tampa Bay area legislators who voted against Sullivan's plans were Fiorentino and Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa. Rep. Dennis Jones, a Treasure Island Republican, voted for the proposal.

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