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Fate of USF Polytech to be negotiated in conference

The Florida House has agreed to start negotiating with the Senate on the proposed creation of a 12th public university in the state of Florida. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, the measure had several Democrats asking why a new school is needed:

Making the University of South Florida’s Polytechnic Campus in Polk County a separate university from USF has been a major priority for Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander. In fact, that’s what drove him to craft a bill to do so.

“What we’re looking for is to create a really dynamic, unique institution here, and I believe, and the Senate affirmed, that having a dedicated board, just interested in the long-term success of this institution, best accomplishes that mission.”

Senate Bill 1994 would create an independent Florida Polytechnic University by speeding up the separation process. It also includes the establishment of a Board of Trustees and a President for the new University.

The proposal has already cleared the Florida Senate. The House took up the measure Monday to look into the possibility of including it in their budget talks with the Senate.

But, some lawmakers, like Representative Rick Kriseman, opposed the idea:

"So, we’re talking about creating an entirely new University separate and apart from USF for 1300 students. Is that the understanding?"

Without a House sponsor, Republican Representative Marlene O’Toole of The Villages was chosen to explain the bill and field questions. Kriseman continued questioning O-Toole about a $36 million allocation to University of South Florida that would go away if Polytech were to separate.

 “And, if that happens, there isn’t as I understand it, and correct me if I’m wrong, there isn’t money to replace that $36 million for specifically USF’s use once it’s transferred over to Polytech?"

O’Toole: "Thank you Mr. Speaker. That’s correct. It would go over to Polytech.”

Democratic Representative Jeff Clemens also joined in the grilling by asking what he called a “basic question.”

“Why do we need a 12th public university in the state of Florida?”

O’Toole answered that would be decided in the upcoming budget conference. She also admitted that there were no studies showing a need for a 12th public university. So, Clemens pressed on with his line of questioning:

Clemens: "So, in the absence of any objective evidence, why would we want to appropriate $36 million for a University that we don’t know we need?"

O’Toole: "The money is already dedicated to Polytech under USF. That does not change. It just gets re-allocated, same $36 million dollars."

Clemens: "But, it seems like we’re removing the functions from a University that already exists and has an infrastructure to create a whole new infrastructure that’s obviously going to cost money. Why would we want to do that when these functions currently reside in a standing university?”

O’Toole: "The Board of Governors did recommend a 12th University.”

At some point on the House Floor, some Democrats, like Representative Gwyndolyn Clarke-Reed, worried the money budgeted for USF could be taken away by creating a new University. But, Representative O’Toole says that’s not the case:

Clarke-Reed: “Representative O’Toole, what is the budget for USF? What is the budgeted amount for the University at this time?

O’Toole: 327-million plus.

Clarke-Reed: What percentage of the budget is the $36 million?

O’Toole: It is in addition to. The $36 million is a separate line-item and it just transfers in whole.”

The House passed the bill with bi-partisan support 101 to 10, agreeing to assign it to a budget conference committee.

With Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander in support, the bill faces challengers, like House Speaker Designate, Republican Representative Will Weatherford. *He’s repeatedly said that should Polytech separate from USF, it should become an online university. House Speaker Dean Cannon has declined to comment on the issue.

Both Weatherford and Cannon, however, did vote “yes” Monday to assign the bill to a budget conference committee.


*Correction: In an interview with WFLA Radio in Tallahassee  on February 7 Representative Will Weatherford, R- Wesley Chapel, said if Florida is going to open a 13th state university, it should be online only. In the same interview he also said the University of South Florida's Poytechnic school would most likely be the 12th state university. Weatherford is in line to be the next House speaker. His position on an online university is NOT related to his position on the Polytech.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.