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Education overhaul

In a landmark day of dealmaking, leaders of the Florida Legislature agree to abolish the Board of Regents, add two law schools and one medical school, plus boost pay for public school teachers.

By BARRY KLEIN and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers committed themselves to a sweeping overhaul of Florida's higher education system, and put taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, under a budget deal announced Tuesday.

Negotiators agreed to establish two new law schools and a new medical college and eliminate the state Board of Regents, a 14-member body created as a buffer against political meddling.

That much was expected, despite opposition from the board and university system Chancellor Adam Herbert. Then came the surprise.

Although lawmakers aren't putting the regents out of business until at least 2003, they wrote into the spending plan a provision that forbids the board from hiring any new employees.

It also mandates a 30 percent budget cut the next fiscal year, and another 30 percent whack the year after.

University system officials were outraged.

"It's one thing to fire a shot across the bow to get people's attention. It's another thing to aim directly into the ship to sink it," said vice chancellor Tom Healy. "This is totally unbelievable."

House Speaker John Thrasher doesn't think so. He said the new programs and slashed budgets are just another step in the most extensive revamping of higher education governance in Florida since 1965, when the regents were established.

Though Herbert spoke with legislative leaders about the budget plan Monday night, he wasn't told about the new limits on the regents' powers until shortly before the deal was announced.

That led to speculation that Herbert will resign rather than preside over the demolition of the system he was hired to lead two years ago.

Herbert, arguably the state's highest-ranking African-American official, had no comment about his plans. Thrasher said lawmakers have no desire to run Herbert off.

"I have the greatest respect for the chancellor," said Thrasher, who said he would like Herbert to work in the new governance structure that creates a super board appointed by the governor to oversee public education from kindergarten to college.

Thrasher was less interested in the complaints of regents. Several of them said Tuesday that the cuts are obvious retribution for their recent unwillingness to back projects such as the new medical school at Florida State University, the speaker's alma mater.

"I'm very disappointed in what's happening to higher education in this state," said Regent Jon Moyle.

While the regents reeled from the surprise cuts, the deal means the state will be commited to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.

The medical college will cost $39-million annually to operate. Each law school is expected to require at least $8-million a year.

That was not a concern Tuesday at FSU and Florida A&M University, or at Florida International University in Miami.

FAMU and FIU are the happy recipients of the state's two new law schools. Lawmakers put a total of $5-million in the state budget to get those schools off the ground.

Both universities tailored their pitch around the state's shortage of minority attorneys.

While 30 percent of Florida's population is African-American or Hispanic, those groups represent only 8 percent of the state's lawyers, said state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

FAMU is a historically black institution. FIU has the highest enrollment of Hispanic students in the university system.

Though he backed the regents last year when they voted against the establishment of even a single new law school, Gov. Jeb Bush has had a change of heart.

He said he now thinks the schools embody his One Florida initiative, which replaces race-based policies in university admissions and state contracting.

"Race won't be used as a criterion for admissions ... but if targeted the right way, it will yield a better result," Bush said.

The critical question is cost. Even an annual price tag of $8-million would be a bargain compared with the cost of law schools at the University of Florida and FSU.

UF officials say taxpayers spent $17-million last year to subsidize their operations. FSU officials say their annual costs are around $14-million.

FIU officials say they already have an on-campus building to house their school. FAMU expects to spend about $25-million on one. But first officials have to decide where to put it.

Orlando and Tampa are competing to be the host. Orlando's effort is further along and includes an offer of donated land downtown.

"The potential is just as good for Tampa as it is for Orlando," said Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg. "But the most important thing is getting a law school."

That feeling was echoed by other FAMU supporters and alumni, who have contended for years that the state closed their law school in the 1960s in order to move it to FSU.

"This has been a very long fight," said Bishop Holifield, the general counsel at FAMU.

The battle over FSU's medical school has been shorter, a testament to the backing it had from legislative alumni.

Rep. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, said it took UF 10 years to secure its medical school. The University of South Florida needed nearly a quarter-century.

Peaden figures it took 2 1/2 years to get the FSU school. It would accept its first 30 students in fall 2001.

"That's a fast track," Peaden said.

And an unlikely one.

The American Medical Association says Florida has plenty of doctors. So do the deans of the state's four other medical schools.

Legislative supporters got around that problem by promising an FSU school would provide much-needed doctors in Florida's rural areas, and in growing fields such as geriatrics.

Regent Steven Uhlfelder says FSU has no way to guarantee that its graduates will fulfill the school's promise. He wants service in rural areas or underserved fields to be a condition of enrollment.

So far, FSU officials have refused to include that requirement.

Herbert and the regents threw in the towel on the law schools and the medical college several months ago.

An immensely frustrated Uhlfelder said he wishes the Legislature would just pull the plug instead of waiting until 2003, the date mandated by an 1998 amendment to the state Constitution that eliminates Florida's elected education commissioner and authorizes the governor to appoint a new state education board.

"For all intents and purposes, the regents are out of the process now," he said. "Look at all these new programs. This is going to happen, so why not make it happen now?"

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