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Senate plan seeks state college board

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For two decades, Florida's state colleges, then known as community colleges, were under a 13-member state board.

That arrangement ended in 2003, after a series of moves consolidating Florida's education system under a new Board of Education appointed by the governor. At the same time, the state university system, after passage of a constitutional amendment in 2002, moved under the control of a separate Board of Governors.

But as Senate President Joe Negron seeks to overhaul Florida's higher-education system this year, one part of his proposal would recreate a State Board of Community Colleges.

Negron, R-Stuart, wants to separate state colleges from the Board of Education, which also is responsible for overseeing the public-school system, with its 67 districts, 2.8 million students and $20 billion budget.

A bill (SB 374) that received approval this week from the Senate Education Committee would recreate the former State Board of Community Colleges, a 13-member panel appointed by the governor, to oversee the college system with its 800,000 students and $2.4 billion budget.

"In my view of that process, the community colleges don't get the attention that they need and deserve," Negron said. "It's almost all focused on K-through-12, and having the community colleges on there is kind of like having the caboose on the end of the train."

Negron said he has "enormous respect" for the state colleges, noting two schools in recent years have won an "Aspen Prize," a national award for top-performing community colleges.

"We have a tremendous system," Negron said. "I think they deserve the respect of having their own governing structure that responds to and handles their particular issues."

Norman Tripp, a former chairman of the State Board of Community Colleges and now a member of the university system Board of Governors, said he endorses the idea of bringing back the college board.

"It's a good idea for them to have a State Board of Community Colleges," Tripp said. "I think that's effective."

State college presidents, who have raised concerns about other provisions in Negron's higher-education package including more-stringent performance standards, are open to the idea of a new board.

Joe Pickens, a former state House member who is president of St. Johns River State College, said when he took over leadership of the school in 2008 he was asked to regularly attend meetings of the State Board of Education, which he did for a four-year period.

While stressing he was not criticizing the existing system, he said his observation of the process led him to the conclusion the Board of Education "is really consumed with K-12 issues and rightfully so."

"The pre-K-12 system in Florida is an all-consuming animal," he said.

Pickens said the idea of reviving the State Board of Community Colleges is not new to him. In fact, he said Robert McLendon, who led the St. Johns River school for 36 years before Pickens became president, is part of an informal group of retired community college presidents who have been collectively lobbying him for years to bring back the board.

"They believe the best thing that could happen to us is for that to come back," he said.

But Pickens, like other presidents who are debating the idea, also stressed that he would not support a board that erodes local trustees and their autonomy. Pickens said local authority is necessary to guide a system with schools as disparate as Chipola College, a small school in the rural Panhandle, and Broward College, a huge school in a heavily urbanized area.

Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College, said he remains neutral on the idea, waiting for more details to emerge. But he said local autonomy is a big issue for him too.

"Candidly, what has worked so well for our system is local control, the ability to make decisions at the local level that allows us to be responsive to the communities that we serve," Murdaugh said.

Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College and chair of the colleges' Council of Presidents, said while he believes the current system is working, he would be open to a state board f it is established in the state Constitution, as was done with the university system's Board of Governors.

He said that would keep the state college system on a “level playing field” with the university system.

"A constitutionally established board lends more stability moving into the future," Meadows said. "If we are going to have a truly advocating, importantly revered board, it has to be established through the Constitution."

Meadows also said a new state board should have a "coordinating" role for the 28-school system, leaving governing to the local boards of trustees. "Our strength is in the local governing boards," he said.