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On the chopping block

ST. PETERSBURG — Six presidents from Florida’s universities united to travel across the state to express their concern of the possible outcomes of proposed budget cuts.

USF President Judy Genshaft, along with other university presidents, spoke in Orlando, Miami and St. Petersburg about retaining funds for education at public universities. The presidents from the University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida International University and New College said universities can assist in creating an economic boom needed in Florida.

“The public universities are the economic engines for this state,” Genshaft said. “We know that a high school certificate, a community college certificate and a bachelor’s certificate adds a significant amount to the salaries people make. We are in the business of creating jobs and educating a workforce that will return investment to the state, so if you want growth and retention and attraction of high paying jobs, hitting the universities is the exactly the wrong place to go.”

As the Florida Legislature begins a two-week special program session today, university presidents said the proposed budget cuts are unfair because they are disproportionate to the overall budget as compared to the total of education.

Genshaft said the public universities account for only 16 percent of the budget, but the Florida House of Representatives proposed a 35 percent cut for public universities.

The Florida Legislature proposed a budget cut that would eliminate $84 -million from university budgets in the 2003-04 school year. Furthermore, they are providing no enrollment growth and are only decreasing the funds from the public universities out of the entire education system, Genshaft said.

In addition to the budget cuts, UF President Chuck Young said the universities are not receiving PECO funds, which are used for building projects, and enrollment growth funds or the government matching of private sector gifts. He said the lack of these funds, in addition to the budget cuts, creates $250-million loss from the budget of Florida’s public universities.

“That is an unprecedented and disproportionate cut that is expected from the universities and is higher than any other educational component within the state, and probably a higher cut than any other agency or constituency within the state,” Genshaft said. “That translates into $140 million in cuts to the operating budget. For the University of South Florida, that is a $26-million cut.”

T.K. Wetherell, president of FSU, said Florida’s budget is better than many other states that have not tightened funds on education.

“States like North Carolina have done just the opposite and said the thing they are going to hold harmless is education and particularly higher education,” Wetherell said.

Modesto Maidique, president of FIU, said some of Florida’s most educated and experienced teachers, especially in the publication and research fields, are mobile in their occupations and may view Florida’s apathy as a reason to move, thus creating a further decline in the quality of state education.

“Universities, particularly research universities, get their prestige, their ranking, their recognition from those faculty members that are most oriented with research and publication and that particular group are the most mobile in the world,” said Maidique. “If we begin systematically decapitating our state universities, there will be many high-quality faculty members that will lose heart, and they will appear in North Carolina, Texas, California, New York and other places. The last message that we want to send (the teachers) is that this state does not value education.”

Genshaft said the budget cuts will not only hurt the students, but it will also hurt the community because the healthcare programs at both UF and USF will be affected by the budget cuts, therefore decreasing the quality and number of healthcare professionals in the workforce.

“There is no way we can increase our enrollment in nursing (to meet the demand by the state) if we get these kind of cuts. As a matter of fact, we will have to freeze or cut back on programs in all of the healthcare issues,” Genshaft said. “That means if you cut the Health Sciences, you are cutting healthcare in the Tampa Bay region.”

To combat the effects of the proposed budget cuts, Wetherell said a possible solution the problem is to reallocate some of the money designated for the maximum level of the constitutional class-size amendment funds that remains untouched. He said that even with the reallocation of funds to the universities and community colleges, the remaining funds would still be acceptable under the constitutional amendment at the mid-range level and it would solve the financial problem for the public universities and community colleges.

“The maximum level assumes that you are going to fill every teaching position by July 1, you are going to the maximum requirement of the class-size amendment and you are going to have every classroom available for that to happen by July 1,” Wetherell said. “First of all, there aren’t enough teachers in Florida, even if you had the money to hire them. We don’t have the money to produce the teachers because of the cut. There isn’t enough time to build the building, so that (extra) money (at the maximum level) is not necessary.”