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College cash could be diverted

If Florida Education Commissioner John Winn has his way, USF could be shorted $30 million in government funding next fiscal year.

Under Winn’s proposal to the state Legislature, extra education funds would be spent on elementary, middle and high schools – and not shared with community colleges or state universities.

But USF Associate Vice President of Government Relations Jeff Muir, who lobbies for USF, said that while he was surprised by Winn’s proposal, he isn’t overly concerned.

“It’s 10-to-1 that this won’t happen,” Muir said.

Winn wants the extra money to pay for construction to meet the class-size amendment, which requires all public K-12 schools to meet certain class-size standards. The State Board of Education asked the Legislature for $1.9 billion to support the amendment.

Winn’s proposal, which has yet to be approved by the Legislature, would allocate Public Education Public Outlay (PECO) revenue funds solely to K-12 public schools. Under the state’s formula, K-12 schools receive 42 percent, community colleges 27 percent and state universities 31 percent.

PECO revenue is expected to be $480 million next fiscal year, which would allocate $144 million to the state’s 11 public universities. According to Muir, USF would be due $30 million.

Muir said the money would probably be put toward a new Interdisciplinary Science building on campus, which has been added to the Board of Governors’ request list.

“The needs for us are so great,” Muir said. “Particularly for growth institutions like USF, that money is crucial.”

In the end, the Legislature – not Winn – decides how the money is divided, Muir said. One representative says colleges have little to worry about.

“Seeing how the Legislature votes, it would not happen,” said Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, who is on the state House’s Colleges and Universities Committee. “It’s highly unlikely.”

Homan is not the only one who thinks that. According to Muir, the Board of Governors, which runs Florida’s universities, is going ahead as planned.

“I have to give Commissioner Winn some credit,” Muir said. “Even he thinks we should go on as planned because he has recognized the Legislature may not think this is such a great idea. Everybody but the commissioner is going forward like the money was allocated normally.”

Winn is required by law to follow the allocation formula, Muir said. To get around that, he has not issued a formal request to the Legislature for the entire PECO pot, but is instead requesting the money by word of mouth.

It’s foreshadowing a potentially bigger problem next year, according to Muir.

“From what I understand, he wants to change the law so the commissioner has more flexibility to decide where the greatest needs for PECO funds are, instead of the formulaic percentages we have now,” he said. “Apparently, what he wants to do in the future is not cut the community colleges and universities out completely; he just wants more discretion in recommending how that money be allocated.”

The class-size amendment, which voters endorsed in 2002, caps class sizes at 25 in high school, 22 in grades four through eight and 18 in pre-kindergarten through third grade. Schools have until 2011 to meet the requirements.