Poly bill poses fiscal challenges for USF System

The financial implications of a bill proposed by the Florida Senate to immediately separate USF Polytechnic became apparent this week with the release of the Senate’s budget.

The bill, proposed by Florida Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee chairwoman Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, would turn USF Polytechnic into an independent university immediately upon passing and name it “Florida Polytechnic University.”

According to the bill, the new school would return all existing USF Polytechnic students and faculty to the USF System, but would absorb all property, infrastructure and revenues. USF would be given the School of Pharmacy, located on the Lakeland campus.

Yet if the Senate budget is approved, the University would incur about 20 percent of the State University System’s budget cuts – more than any of the 11 other Florida universities – and receive no funding to make up for the loss of USF Polytechnic or to cover the costs of absorbing its students, faculty and pharmacy program.

Florida Polytechnic University would receive $32.7 million in appropriations – compared to USF Tampa’s $74.5 million budget – with no students enrolled or faculty hired.

In an interview with The Oracle, USF President Judy Genshaft said the bill is not feasible.

“I don’t mind at all taking all the students and all the faculty, if the money came with it,” she said. “But we cannot do it without resources coming in.”

The bill met staunch opposition at the Polytechnic campus as well.

A letter sent to Lynn Monday from the Polytechnic Faculty Senate said the campus responded with “grave dismay,” and worried about the campus separating before it could achieve independent accreditation, which the campus currently does not have.

Mike Nacrelli, a senior majoring in psychology at Polytechnic, said morale on the campus is low.

“Last semester was tough enough to get through, and now it’s just a mental roadblock,” he said. “It was tough enough just to get motivated for this semester, and now the light in the students is gone. Most people don’t even want to be there. We’re not capable of focusing on our work.”

Nacrelli said he is one class away from graduation, but he wasn’t sure if the university would even remain open for the rest of the semester.

USF spokesman Michael Hoad said the campus would likely stay open until at least July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Despite her initial reluctance to see the branch campus separate, Genshaft expressed her commitment to help Polytechnic leave the system after the Board of Governors (BOG) granted the campus conditional independence if it fulfills requirements laid out in a five-year transition plan.

At an emergency Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting Monday to discuss the potential cuts to the University’s budget, BOT Chairman John Ramil expressed his recommitment to the BOG’s initial proposal.

“This BOT accepted the responsibility to meet those nine criteria (established by the BOG) and move forward, and we said we would do that in an expeditious manner looking out for the students, faculty and credibility of the organization,” he said. “Tonight’s meeting is intended to continue on that path.”

Yet not all are convinced that USF is committed to the plan.

Lynn proposed the bill with help from Senate Budget Committee chairman Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, an outspoken proponent of Polytechnic independence since the idea’s inception last summer. When Genshaft replaced Polytechnic’s regional chancellor Marshall Goodman with David Touchton in December, both Alexander and the BOG criticized her decision. Alexander later called for a massive data request of all USF-related expenditures, including sources of funding and personal travel expenditures of administrators, and publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with “USF System leadership.”

After Monday’s meeting, reporters surrounded Genshaft with questions regarding speculation that Alexander has played a large role in determining USF’s fate. Genshaft smiled and deflected all Alexander-related questions to Ramil.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said in a December interview with The Oracle that if Alexander held a vendetta against USF’s initial opposition to Polytechnic’s separation, it would likely meet strong opposition.

“If there is any attempt to punish anybody or any institution that isn’t politically going along with the Legislature’s personal wishes, I think there are going to be a lot of legislators who will stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to go along with this political retribution,'” she said.

Greg Giordano, chief legislative aide for Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the senator is opposed to the bill’s rushed timeline.

“The idea of the bill showing up five minutes before the start of the Appropriations Committee for Higher Education, (Fasano) just felt that was inappropriate process to make such a major decision for the entire system,” he said.

The bill will be heard Wednesday morning in the Senate Budget Committee.