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Florida Polytechnic University promises in jeopardy one year later, new turmoil arises in Tallahassee

6:35 AM, Mar 22, 2013   |    comments
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LAKELAND, Fla. -- As Florida Polytechnic University's small staff and Board of Trustees continue to develop their plans for the state's 12th university, unintended consequences of the controversial bill that created the school could force them to ask for more money.

Meanwhile, a state senator from Bradenton is indicating the Florida Senate's budget could actually reduce the allocations Florida Polytechnic University (FPU) was already expecting.

The 10 News Investigators discovered -- while Poly has more than $100 million to construct its flagship building on its new campus along I-4 -- not enough money was set aside for the school to finish out the building and construct supporting buildings on campus.

TIMELINE: Florida Poly's controversial history

Last year's SB 1994, which was pushed by former State Sen. JD Alexander and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, split Poly out from under the USF umbrella. It also required the new Poly university to create a student wellness center, build a student dorm, and reach accreditation by 2016.

But SB 1994 also created short-term financial problems for the new institution:

  1. With the 2300 tuition-paying USF-Poly students absorbed by USF, the new Florida Polytechnic was left without any revenue stream other than state allocations.

  2. With most of the students transferring to USF-Lakeland, the $1.6 million in student fees they had banked - earmarked for development at the new Polytechnic campus - were transferred to USF as well. 

  3. Without USF's assets and credit history, Poly is unable to secure loans for construction projects.

  4. With few assets, no credit history, and no students yet, Poly also saw a public-private partnership dissolve that would have built its first dorm by a private developer in exchange for students' rent.

  5. And the accreditation process - which might have been completed in 2013 under the USF umbrella, was restarted.  Trustees are now aiming for 2016, but some have expressed skepticism at the expedited timeline.

FPU's inaugural Board of Trustees (BOT), many of whom had no idea of the previous controversies when they took the job, recently voted to combine two of its required buildings - the dorm and the wellness center - to save on construction and early operating costs.

But with no accreditation, no track record, and not much of a campus, trustees have acknowledged top students may not be motivated to apply right away when the school opens, hopefully late in 2014.

The 2016 accreditation might be ambitious, as well.  New College of Florida, which made a smoother transition out from under USF's umbrella, still needed three years to reach accreditation. And FGCU, which also was a phase-over from a USF branch campus, needed four years from the time it broke ground to the time it was accredited.

Chief Operating Officer of FPU, Ava Parker, told 10 News the chances were "great" that the university would have to offer free tuition to its inaugural class(es), further delaying a much-needed revenue stream.

"It's just a shame we didn't stick to the original plan," said former State Senator Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who was one of only four senators to vote against SB 1994 last year. "(Florida Polytechnic) has the potential to be something very good, but it also has the potential to take a long time to get there and cost a lot of money."

Another Senator voting against SB 1994 was Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who argued in 2012 that the state couldn't afford splitting Poly off of USF right away. Now, as a state representative, he wants the bill reversed.

"The biggest challenge," Fasano said, "is where are we going to find the dollars needed to continue a 12th university? We don't have those kind of dollars."

But Parker, keenly aware of the political nature of the discussion, said FPU can make it to the fall of 2014 without needing more money, as long as the legislature passes a few "tweaks" to last year's SB 1994.  Although the law already gave FPU more flexibility than the state's 11 other universities in how it can use its funding, Parker says Poly may need more to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, Parker - and trustees - remain bullish on the future of Florida Polytechnic.

"We believe there is a position for a polytechnic university that can compliment the delivery system that we currently have in the State of Florida," Parker said, adding that their preliminary research has shown a shortage of STEM students in Florida.

But without any faculty or students yet, FPU's 2013-2014 operating budget could be at risk.  State Senator Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chair of the Senate's Education Committee, did not include FPU's expected $22.4 million in his draft budget. 

While budget numbers often change during negotiations with the House of Representatives, Galvano's headline-making move could be a sign of resistance from some legislators.

"I think it's going to be a long time before the state looks to support Poly again," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who voted for SB 1994 last year as a state representative.

"I think everyone understood we were going to be in Tallahassee a long time if we didn't have Poly funded & created," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, referencing JD Alexander's uncompromising stance late in the session.

TIMELINE: Florida Poly's controversial history

But the House may turn out to be more sympathetic to Poly's cause than the Senate in 2013.

The House Appropriations Chair, Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, has been one of the school's biggest supporters and his sister, Maggie Mariucci, was one of its first hires.  She resigned from USF Polytechnic during the tumultuous split last year, but was hired last month as FPU's Director of External Affairs.

Parker said Mariucci was the best candidate for the job and there were no political undertones to the hire.

The 10 News Investigators took questions about FPU's budget to Governor Scott, but on multiple occasions, he deflected direct questions and said he would wait-and-see. In 2012, he repeatedly said he wouldn't approve a 12th university if the state couldn't afford it, but while existing universities faced cuts, FPU received allocations.

Next Thursday, FPU trustee chair Robert Gidel will present this report to the state's Board of Governors, laying out the BOT's vision and expected timeline for the university. 

The 10 News Investigators also reached out to former Senator JD Alexander, even hand-delivering a note to his wife, Cindy. But Alexander, who late in 2011 said "we have enough base budget to make this work," never returned a message.

Cindy now sits on the foundation board for FPU, helping to fundraise for the new university. Parker said the Alexanders have been some of the institution's biggest supporters, but JD hasn't had much direct contact.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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