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War over regents gets fiery

Opponents of the higher education board's elimination will decide today whether to seek court or ballot-box redress.

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2001


Opponents of the higher education board's elimination will decide today whether to seek court or ballot-box redress.

The fight over the reorganization of Florida's higher education system could end in court, or it could end at the ballot box. But one thing appears certain: Before it ends, it is going to get ugly.

Those looking to overthrow the overhaul say it will transform Florida universities into a spoils system ripe for legislative plundering. They want to turn Gov. Jeb Bush, who helped design the changes, into the poster boy for what they consider a dangerous experiment.

"This system is political, and it will cause damage," said Robin Gibson, a former chairman of the state Board of Regents and a leader of the effort to reverse the changes. "We are trying to avert what could be a disaster."

That kind of attack exasperates supporters of the reorganization, who call their opponents "arrogant and elitist."

"This is just a bedraggled platoon of ex-regents who want to sit on high and decide what's best for Florida students," said Phil Handy, a Winter Park businessman who helped design the new structure.

He said his opponents have no chance of stopping the reorganization.

"They just can't concede that education in the 21st century is going to be different," he said.

That, at least, seems a certainty.

The regents will go out of business June 30. Much of their authority will shift to a new seven-member state Board of Education. The rest of their powers will be vested in new boards of trustees at each of Florida's 11 public universities.

The latest chapter in the battle begins today, when a 24-member steering committee closely aligned with U.S. Sen. Bob Graham decides whether to challenge the changes in court.

Even if committee members decide against a lawsuit, which appears likely, Gibson said they will soon begin raising an estimated $6-million for a ballot initiative designed to replace the Republican-backed revamp with one of their own.

Gibson acknowledges that that task won't be easy, especially during the run up to an election year. Potential contributors will be getting hit up for money for a lot of other races, including what is expected to be a bruising battle by Democrats to try to unseat Bush.

But committee members say that fight may actually help with fundraising, since Bush will be a focus of their campaign.

"I think the governor should be held accountable for the consequences of supporting changes that could be totally destructive to higher education in this state," says Dennis Ross, a committee member and former regents chairman.

Handy, who led the ballot initiative that imposed term limits on Florida lawmakers, considers such charges nonsense.

He said the overhaul will benefit students by creating a system that oversees all aspects of Florida education, from kindergarten to post-graduate work.

It will be more accountable to taxpayers, he said, and more efficient to operate.

Opponents are kidding themselves if they expect to create a groundswell in favor of resurrecting the regents, said Handy, who is expected to be the first chairman of the new state Board of Education.

To succeed at a ballot initiative, "you need the support of at least 70 percent of the voters going in," Handy said.

"I don't think more than 20 percent of Florida voters even know the regents exist," he said.

Gibson said he is looking forward to educating voters. He said state lawmakers already have provided him with plenty of material.

He pointed to last year's decisions to build a new medical school and two new law schools over the regents' strenuous objections.

Florida State University got the medical school, Gibson said, because it was rammed through by then-House Speaker John Thrasher, an FSU alumnus who later moved to abolish the regents.

He said the law schools, which went to historically black Florida A&M University and predominantly Hispanic Florida International University, were created to appease minority lawmakers.

"Does anyone really think we need more lawyers in Florida?" asked Gibson, a Lake Wales attorney.

He mentioned the lobbyist who got a special exemption this year that could require his son to be admitted to a Florida medical school.

He said Senate President John McKay, a Bradenton Republican, was personally responsible for the creation of Florida's newest university, New College in Sarasota, which has 650 students.

Gibson said such actions demonstrate the importance of giving higher education boards constitutional status, which would prevent lawmakers from simply abolishing them for making independent decisions.

He said the steering committee will decide today whether to recommend a governing system run by one state board with constitutional status or to couple that board with separate panels of university trustees.

Handy said he is happy that his opponents are starting to see the wisdom of a two-tier system.

As for making the boards constitutional, Handy said that argument is a red herring.

He said the new state board is a constitutional entity. "We've made sure the Legislature can't simply eradicate them."

There remains one wild card: A legal challenge that could halt the overhaul in its tracks.

Graham has argued that the reorganization far exceeds the intent of voters who approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 creating the new state Board of Education. He said the board was supposed to focus entirely on Florida's K-12 system.

As evidence, he noted the amendment's reference to "free and public education," a definition Graham says has historically excluded colleges and universities.

Charles Canady, Bush's general counsel, said the senator is wrong. In a recent letter to Gibson, he said opponents of the overhaul are misinterpreting the meaning of the word "free" in a constitutional context.

Canady said it means the state board has authority over "at least" the K-12 system; it doesn't mean the board "may exercise jurisdiction over only those schools."

Canady also argued that a legal challenge filed now would be premature since the constitutional provision supposedly violated won't be fully implemented until 2003. That is when the reorganization will be extended to include the K-12 system.

Even if his committee decides against a lawsuit, Gibson said he expects a challenge to come from somewhere. One organization contemplating action is the Florida Parent Teacher Association, which expects to make a decision in July.

Members are worried that the changes -- especially the university boards -- will give higher education too much influence in the Legislature.

State PTA president Patty Hightowers said the group's executive committee has endorsed a legal challenge, but it still must go to the PTA board.

She expects that to happen in July.

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