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Pinellas lawmakers pressure USF to protect St. Pete ‘branch campus’

News earlier this week suggested the smaller campuses may lose some autonomy.

Pinellas County lawmakers are sounding off on a plan to consolidate all University of South Florida campuses into one singular accreditation.

During a presentation to the USF Board of Trustees this week, USF President Steven Currall outlined a preliminary blueprint for the organizational structure of a school operating as a singularly accredited institution.

“The [consolidation] Task Force further recommended that branch campuses continue to retain the academic authority to make hiring and budget decisions. The preliminary plan appears to depart from these important recommendations,” wrote Rep. Ben Diamond in a letter to Currall Thursday.

Diamond and other local lawmakers spoke out against the new plan during a Pinellas County Legislative Delegation meeting Thursday. Under Currall’s proposal, regional chancellors at the St. Petersburg and Sarasota/Manatee campuses would assume greater responsibility for fundraising and economic development but would lose the authority to hire and fire academic staff.

Diamond’s letter references results from a consolidation task force that spent months discussing consolidation with students, faculty, staff and stakeholders.

Further, the Florida Legislature during its 2019 Legislative Session approved language that better defines St. Petersburg and Sarasota/Manatee as branch campuses.

“Florida law defines ‘branch campuses’ as having their own ‘faculty and administrative or supervisory organization’ and ‘budgetary and hiring authority,’” Diamond wrote. “The preliminary plan proposes that the regional chancellors would only have authority over ‘nonacademic budgets.’ But the mission of a university is an academic one. To only grant the regional chancellors’ authority over “nonacademic” budgetary and personnel issues does not comply with the provisions defining a branch campus in [Florida Statute.]”

Sen. Jeff Brandes shares similar concerns.

“Everybody is really concerned about this,” Brandes said. “We really bent over backward to get this thing lined up the right way, and it feels like the spirit of the law isn’t being followed.”

Brandes was firm in his insistence that the issues with the preliminary plan be fixed.

“The ability to apply pressure is pretty much endless,” Brandes said of USF’s bargaining position during the upcoming 2020 Legislative Session.

The school is already under pressure from lawmakers as a result of cost overruns for the medical school facility. Brandes said he expects $30 million in fiscal asks from the school. Pair that with the fact that the next Speaker of the House sits on the Pinellas and Tampa Bay Legislative Delegations and Brandes has a solid point.

Asked what he wants to see changed in the organizational structure, Brandes said the St. Pete and Sarasota/Manatee campuses should be treated “as a branch campus period, not a branch campus in name only.” That includes, Brandes said, hiring and firing authority for academic staff as well as budgetary autonomy.

The school has until July 1, 2020, to consolidate.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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