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‘It’s still not enough:’ USF, Tampa Bay community protest College of Education’s budget cuts, USF’s decision to keep some programs

About 50 people gathered at the corner of Fowler Avenue and LeRoy Collins Boulevard to protest the latest College of Education budget cuts. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

From chants to speeches, students, faculty, local teachers and community members gathered Friday night to share their stories on how the College of Education (COE) has impacted their lives and advocate to save all of its undergraduate programs. 

The hourlong protest was held at the corner of Fowler Avenue and LeRoy Collins Boulevard and featured remarks from a wide range of speakers, including the newly elected Hillsborough County School Board member Nadia Combs.

A COE graduate herself, Combs was outraged when she first heard the news, especially since the community did not play a role in the decision-making behind the budget cuts. 

“I can’t understand, there are so many programs here. Why is the College of Education, the most important thing being cut first? I mean, this is a huge university. There are so many other cuts, the College of Education should be the last one that’s cut,” Combs said.

“Do we need to do a better job? Possibly, you know, attracting people to the program? Yes, let’s do it. Give us a chance to do that. You just don’t come in and cut without discussing it with our community the impact that it’s going to have on our schools and our students, in the public schools.

“As a USF Bull, I am just so disappointed.”

The decision to eliminate most undergraduate programs at the COE was made after the college experienced a 63% decline in enrollment over the past decade and budget cuts from state funding. As USF prepares to implement budget cuts across all colleges, the COE is expected to lose about $6.8 million in state funding over the next two years.

The university, however, released a statement Friday reversing its original plan to eliminate all undergraduate programs to offer a selection of the nine baccalaureate degrees, 15 majors, five minors and 18 concentrations currently available.

While the announcement was a step forward in keeping the undergraduate programs at the COE, some believe it’s still not enough.

Spencer Bazen, a junior majoring in elementary education, said he will keep protesting until all COE programs are saved.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “But, we’re still gonna keep pressing the issue and we’re still gonna try to save as much of the College of Education as possible because every degree program matters.”

For others, USF’s latest statement it’s not clear enough and could still put many COE programs in jeopardy.

“I don’t know how definite that decision is or what that decision really entails,” COE graduate and Hillsborough County elementary school teacher Sarah Kunis. “I don’t know if they’re still keeping the [College of Education], just keeping a few of the classes and moving them to another building or keeping all the staff. I don’t think that’s enough.”

Kunis graduated from USF last year and got a job in teaching right after graduation. She said the college was crucial in building her foundation as an educator and connecting her with key people in the district through her internship and field experience.

Members of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association (HCA) were also in attendance. Scattered among the crowd while holding signs and wearing red shirts, they all had a similar goal in mind.

President of HCA Rob Kriete said USF’s latest statement sounded more like a “political statement” than a commitment to save the COE undergraduate programs.

“I’d like to see which of those programs and things that they’re keeping,” Kriete said. “We need to create a keep a pipeline of young teachers coming to Hillsborough County in the state of Florida. So unless that’s happening, I would be very skeptical.

“We all need to keep fighting. I mean, every teacher every community member, everybody that’s got a child in this district, who has been a child in this district needs to stay awake and understand that this is a very important thing that’s going on here and that we need to make sure that we have this ability to cultivate and create teachers right here in Hillsborough and in Tampa.”

He said USF’s plan to cut programs in the COE is just another “shot” to public education. Without the college, he said the school district won’t be able to recruit as many professors as they have been in past years.

“We believe that every student deserves a high-quality free public education and this is another way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re finding ways to make that not happen for our kids,’ and that’s just unacceptable,” he said.

Erin Morgan, a member services specialist at HCA, and her husband, Gabriel Morgan, stood together during the protest. While the pressure is working, she said the advocacy will continue.

“They should keep the whole thing open,” she said. “If it shows that the pressure is working good, but that doesn’t go nearly enough to securing what needs to continue to be happening, which is the entire college remain open.”

Combs said this is just the start. As a COE graduate and Hillsborough County School Board member, Combs said she will continue advocating for the COE until significant changes are made.

“I’m going to continue talking about this in the community, talking about it as a board, making sure that we get the key people like Senator Janet Cruz and other key people, Betty Castor … we’re going to come together to make sure that we continue to fight to keep the University of South Florida College of Education open,” Combs said.

“We’re not going to stop, we’re going to continue fighting. This is just the beginning for us.”