Bill to create state community colleges board advances in Senate

A bill that would create a new governance board for the state college system and impose a limit on the number of four-year degrees awarded by the colleges advanced in the Senate on Wednesday.

In a 6-1 vote, the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved the bill (SB 540), sponsored by Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange.

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The bill, in part, would create a 13-member State Board of Community Colleges to oversee the 28 schools in the state college system. The colleges are now under the State Board of Education, which also oversees the kindergarten-through-high-school system.

Hukill said creating a separate board for the colleges would heighten the profile of the system, which was previously under its own statewide board until it was moved to the State Board of Education in 2003.

“Basically, we see it as a way of dedicating this board to the advocacy and advancement of the unique goals of the community colleges,” Hukill said.

The legislation would also cap the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded by the colleges. Each school would limit its enrollment of four-year degree students to no more than 20 percent of the school’s entire enrollment, while the statewide system would have a 10 percent enrollment cap.

Hukill said only three schools now have a baccalaureate enrollment of more than 10 percent, while the system’s overall four-year enrollment is around 5 percent.

“There is a tremendous amount of room for growth,” she said.

The bill would also revise performance standards for the colleges, including requiring full-time, associate degree students to graduate within two years.

College advocates raised concerns about the legislation.

“We serve a unique population of students who otherwise would not step foot in a college classroom were it not for the Florida college system,” said Lenore Rodicio, a provost at Miami Dade College.

Rodicio questioned the impact of the new performance standards on the Miami Dade student population, where 62 percent of students were part-time in the fall of 2016 and more than half were on Pell grants, which are awarded to students from low-income families.

Rodicio said only 21 percent of the students enrolling in 2016 were full-time students, and it would be unfair to base the school’s performance funding on such a “small component” of the overall population.

Michael Brawer, representing the Association of Florida Colleges, said the schools are still adjusting to current performance standards and that another change would be “tantamount to moving the finish line as the race is going on.”

Brawer also said colleges were uneasy about the establishment of a new statewide board, particularly if it reduced the authority of local boards of trustees that oversee each school.

“We believe we have strong governance through our local district board of trustees model,” he said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, suggested the cap on four-year degrees could be eased if the bill exempted new baccalaureate programs that were established to meet local economic needs or if local universities did not object to the programs.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the bill is better than a measure (SB 374) passed by the Legislature last year but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. But Farmer voted against the bill, saying he was “not quite there yet.”

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the higher education spending panel, said his committee would unveil its proposed budget next week and that funding for the 28 state colleges would be “at a more than adequate level.”

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