Tampa Tribune editorial: the Florida Polytechnic fraud
Last year Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott made a mockery of Florida's higher education system when they created a 12th university while cutting the existing universities' budgets by $300 million. Supporters insisted that transforming the University of South Florida's Polytechnic branch campus in Lakeland into an independent university would not cost any additional dollars or harm other universities. It was all a big fraud, as is abundantly apparent now. As the Tribune's Jerome Stockfisch reports, Florida Polytechnic University's trustees are asking for an additional $25 million this year, though it has about $109 million to get the university running by 2014. Most of that money was left by USF.But now the trustees of the unaccredited school with no students say they need more for infrastructure, including landscaping, roads and furniture. This comes at the same time USF and other universities are struggling to keep buildings safe for students. As Stockfisch recently detailed, the primary funding source for construction in the university system is the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, fund. It uses a portion of the Gross Receipts Tax, which is assessed on electric, telecommunications and cable bills. The fund, which also supports K-12 school construction, has been dwindling because of the increased use of cellphones and decreased use of electricity due to greater energy efficiency. USF has buildings that need to be brought up to fire code and that don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet at the same time a university that serves 47,000 students can't take care of its most basic needs, an unneeded university created solely on legislative whim wants $25 million to polish up an empty campus. Scott, in foolishly signing the Polytechnic measure, said he didn't expect the initial costs to be more than the USF branch. Scott, who never met with USF Polytechnic students or faculty opposed to the move, should have known better. Instead, he signed the law that resulted in the creation of a new university without a faculty, while USF was charged with completing the education of students who had enrolled in the branch campus. As Pasco lawmaker Mike Fasano said of Polytechnic's latest request: "It was just common sense. There's no way you can build a 12th university and think they're not going to come back and ask for more money." The entire Polytechnic debacle was an example of Tallahassee at its most abusive. JD Alexander, then the powerful chair of the Senate budget committee, rammed through independence because USF didn't respond as quickly as he wanted to his demands for his pet project. There was no academic review, much less justification, for starting a new university. It was pure power politics that will forever haunt and harm Florida's higher education system. It will be interesting to see how lawmakers respond to the funding pit they created. We wish they would deny the funding request, scrap the independence scheme and put Polytechnic back where it belongs — under the authority of USF — until previously agreed upon benchmarks are met that would determine whether Polytechnic can stand on its own. But that would only happen in a Legislature whose priority was academic excellence, not political pork.