SPJC gets special status
By BARRY KLEIN and DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- State lawmakers late Friday approved a sweeping overhaul of Florida's higher education system, launching an experiment that includes major changes for the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg Junior College.
The legislation, which did not pass until the session's final moments, abolishes the state Board of Regents, a body created 36 years ago to minimize political interference in higher education.
Beginning July 1, the regents' powers will be shifted to new university boards of trustees and a seven-member state Board of Education. Gov. Jeb Bush will appoint all of their members -- a total of 139 -- giving him unprecedented influence over Florida's higher education future.
Supporters of the Republican-led restructuring said the changes will make Florida universities more responsive to student concerns and work force needs.
Critics say the elimination of the regents will ignite wasteful competition between universities and open the door to increased political meddling.
As evidence, they point to the way powerful lawmakers shielded other higher education changes by attaching them to the restructuring bill, which insured their passage despite questions about their impact.
One of those measures will allow SPJC to become the first community college in Florida to offer four-year degrees. Administrators there say that could attract an additional 1,000 students in fall 2002, when several new degree programs will debut.
Another change requires USF to grant significantly greater autonomy to its regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota, including budget independence and separate accreditation.
Both measures were pushed by state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, who has accused USF of shortchanging its regional campuses.
Last year, he almost succeeded in pushing through a bill that would have made the campuses into independent schools.
He threatened to do the same this year, but backed off after USF officials said they would support his plan for greater autonomy.
Then there is the matter of New College, the well-regarded liberal arts program USF has operated on its Sarasota campus since 1975.
As part of the reorganization bill Friday, New College became the state's newest university.
It has just 650 students. That's about one-fifth of the enrollment at Florida Gulf Coast University, the state's smallest school until now.
But New College has a powerful patron -- Senate president John McKay, a Bradenton Republican who persuaded colleagues to put $1.2-million in the state budget to help pay for the school's split from USF.
That isn't nearly enough to pay the school's operating expenses, which this year totalled at least $5.9-million.
But supporters are undaunted.
"USF has been wonderful to New College, but if we're serious about enhancing the national stature of the school, independence is the way to go," said Rolland Heiser, president of the New College Foundation.
For a time Friday night, it looked as if the education overhaul, and all the changes attached to it, might go down to defeat.
The Senate passed its version at about 9 p.m., then adjourned. That meant the House could only vote it up or down.
In its last business before the end of the session, the House approved the bill at 11:36 p.m.
The rush to approve the massive plan irritated many Democrats.
"I really feel this is a disgrace, railroading this through at this hour," said State Rep. Nan Rich, D-Weston.
"I feel like we were cheated," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-Lantana.
The restructuring has other critics, including U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who has promised to head a campaign to have a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot next year to reinstate the regents.
Graham, who called the education governance plan "a theft in the night," said the new system was certain to be challenged in court.
The key element in the restructuring is the way it changes how higher education is governed in Florida.
Most of the regents' duties will be assumed by the 13-member university boards, which will have the power to hire and fire their presidents and create new degree programs up to the masters level.
More expensive doctoral and professional programs still must be approved by the state Board of Education, which will oversee all aspects of Florida's education system from kindergarten to post-graduate work.
But the changes likely to have the most impact in the Tampa Bay area are those affecting USF and SPJC.
From now on, the USF campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota will be funded directly by the Legislature, rather than through administrators at the main campus in Tampa.
The bill also requires USF officials to seek separate accreditation for both campuses, which will have independent governing boards that can approve new programs.
The changes at SPJC are equally dramatic.
Starting next fall, SPJC can enroll juniors and seniors in programs designed to earn four-year degrees in certain, high-demand fields, including education, nursing and technology.
Sullivan said the expansion is needed if Pinellas residents are to have adequate access to higher education. But the changes also will serve as a model for other community colleges in Florida.
The restructuring bill includes a provision that allows any two-year school on Florida to offer four-year degrees if it can demonstrate a need, and the ability to meet it.
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Mary Jo Melone