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Bush signs law abolishing board of regents

Oversight of education from kindergarten through graduate school will go to a new state Board of Education.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Quietly and not unexpectedly, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill into law Monday that will abolish the 35-year-old Board of Regents that oversees Florida's public universities.

The law -- the focus of intense debate during this year's legislative session -- will replace the 14 regents with a seven-member board of education. The state's 10 public universities each will have its own board of trustees, and the boards are expected to have the power to hire and fire a president.

The changes, however, aren't scheduled until 2003. Meanwhile, a transition commission will help determine how power should be transferred to the new state Board of Education. The new board will govern all of Florida education, from kindergarten through graduate school.

Declaring the need for a "seamless" system that will provide better accountability to voters, Bush and the Republican-led Legislature pushed mightily for the changes this spring. They overrode objections from Bush ally and university system chancellor Adam Herbert, who warned that the proposal could weaken and ultimately destroy higher education in Florida.

Herbert said individual boards for each school would mean further turf wars over resources. Other critics said lawmakers were simply seeking revenge on the regents, who had repeatedly denied their requests for new goodies for their alma maters.

A last-minute amendment seemed to soothe some hurt feelings. That change will give the regents 30 days to develop their own plan for putting the transition commission's recommendations into action.

"The way I look at it, what the bill does is create a skeleton and the transition task force kind of puts the flesh to it. During the course of that conversation, we'll be involved in that," said Keith Goldschmidt, a spokesman for the regents.

Goldschmidt said Herbert has not discussed whether he will remain in the new system or in what capacity. He won't do so at least until the transition commission makes its first round of recommendations in March, Goldschmidt said.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Legislature to approve or reject any recommendations.

Regent Steven Uhlfelder, who argued strenuously against the proposal during the session, now is more sanguine.

"I'm optimistic that once people look at the system and they look at how things work best nationally, the better approach would be more coordination and more cooperation, not less. I think the more power you give the individual boards, the greater opportunity you have for friction," Uhlfelder said.

The regents' future came before lawmakers this year because Florida voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment that eliminated an elected education commissioner. Instead, the amendment gave the governor the authority to appoint a seven-member board of education.

The governor will appoint the new board of education, which will appoint a commissioner to oversee the system. That commissioner will appoint chancellors for each division -- universities, community colleges, public schools and non-public and non-traditional education.

By Oct. 1, Bush, the Senate president and the House speaker will appoint the transition commission that will determine what duties to assign to those new positions.

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