Senate President Bill Galvano said he wouldn’t let New College of Florida get merged into a larger institution this year.
But that doesn’t mean the school is in the clear.
The Bradenton Republican who represents the part of the liberal arts college said he’s always worked to protect the nature of the school.
“The fact remains that since I came to the Senate in 2012, the Legislature has infused a third of New College’s budget in one special payment or another,” Galvano said.
“While I believe New College adds value to our community, my time in the Legislature is coming to an end, and I do not want the college to be in a situation where it has not adequately addressed some of the systemic problems with its financial situation, and there is not someone from the Sarasota area in a position like mine to backfill such a huge percentage of its budget.”
House leaders mid-Session unrolled a radical proposal to merge New College into Florida State and Florida Polytechnic University into the University Florida. The plan evolved later to roll both smaller colleges into UF, and most recently was being considered as an acquisition.
But there was never a companion proposal in the Senate, and the bill was postponed on second reading in the House Friday. House Speaker José Oliva revealed the plan was dead because of a lack of interest in the Senate.
Sens. Joe Gruters and Kelli Stargel, Republicans representing Sarasota and Lakeland, respectively, both opposed stripping colleges in their districts of independence.
Similarly, all members of the Sarasota and Manatee House delegations voiced opposition to merging New College with another school and Rep. Mike LaRosa, a Polk County Republican, was the only GOP House vote cast against the proposal in committee.
But Galvano early on signaled a willingness to talk about the proposal. He later went further in suggesting the plan was worth considering as a way to protect the school.
“What I don’t want to see happen is that we go forward and then there’s no decision maker who’s going to fill in that what now amounts to 37% of their base budget by one special payment form or another,” he said.
“So if it means having them under an administrative umbrella that could more efficiently execute the admin side of it so you don’t have that disproportionate ratio, because let’s remember their degrees too if not the highest cost in the state, one or two.”
In the end, Galvano killed the plan from consideration in House and Senate talks.
“During my 16 years of service in the Florida Legislature, I have consistently supported New College of Florida as an important and unique component of Florida’s State University System,” he said.
“New College became an independent university not long before I was first elected to the Florida House in 2002, and as an elected official representing the area, I have felt my responsibility is to advocate for New College here in Tallahassee. That responsibility became more significant following my election to the Florida Senate where I have served as Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, the committee charged with preparing the budget for Florida’s SUS, for four years under two Senate Presidents.”
Notably, New College achieved its independence from the University of South Florida in 2001, when Bradenton Republican John McKay served as Senate President.
“I fully agree with supporters who tout New College’s niche in a world where higher education has changed dramatically over the last generation, shifting from full-time residential settings, to commuter campuses, to exclusively online programs,” Galvano said.
“With the seemingly endless choice of higher education options for today’s students, New College provides a unique balance between a traditional liberal arts experience and a modern, innovative curriculum.”
But the fact New College right now has the highest cost to the state for every degree produced by a public university remains a problem the school must get under control.
“The questions the Florida Legislature must ask about New College, along with every other institution within Florida’s No. 1 ranked higher-education system, are: does the exorbitant per-student cost of this particular student experience produce a return on investment for Florida taxpayers who support it, and does that return on investment require an administratively independent New College?”
That’s an issue Galvano said New College President Donal O’Shea and the Board of Trustees must imminently address. The school has a plan to enroll 1,200 students by the 2023 school year, but the past couple years have seen its student body shrink.
“President O’Shea is working hard to address ongoing enrollment issues, as well as other performance metrics, and I support those important efforts,” Galvano said. “Therefore, in my view, a merger at this point would be premature, and so I decided to not allow it to move forward.”
He reminded, however, that the region won’t have so powerful a champion in the Legislature for years. The Bradenton Republican cannot seek reelection so he will be replaced with a freshman Senator next year. Gruters, the other Senator representing the college, is a freshman now.
The two House members representing the college, Republican Will Robinson and Democrat Margaret Good, both opposed a merger, but are freshman in that Chamber. Robinson lost a fight to get in line for House Speaker in coming years, and Good isn’t seeking reelection because she’s running for Congress.