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At town hall, Pinellas voices urge delay for USF consolidation proposal

If state lawmakers hadn't gotten the message yet, a handful of vocal speakers at a town hall meeting Friday in St. Petersburg hammered their point home: Slow down the proposed consolidation of the University of South Florida System.

Again and again, some prominent Pinellas community members echoed concerns that they've been voicing since the proposal first surfaced last month.

They invoked the troubled history between USF Tampa and USF St. Petersburg, remembering the days when they said St. Pete was starved for funding and itched for more control. On Friday, about a dozen civic leaders, faculty and students past and present extolled the virtues of USF St. Petersburg, which they said flourished once it secured separate accreditation in 2006. The overall crowd numbered about three dozen.

At the front of St. Petersburg's Sunshine Center, the event's host, State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, took notes. He was flanked by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg.

All three lawmakers remarked on what they described as a hasty process in Tallahassee since the consolidation proposal appeared in mid-January on the final pages of a massive higher education bill. Behind the push is Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who has said it will spread the benefits of Tampa's rising reputation and funding to St. Petersburg and Sarasota. USF leaders have said the idea could bring significant benefits to the entire system and its students, such as shared academic programs and prestige.

As evidenced Friday, some in Pinellas remain unconvinced that phasing out the separate accreditation at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee is the right move.

"I think this institution is in jeopardy of losing everything it's gained," said Michael Killenberg, a retired faculty member at USF St. Petersburg, to applause. "I just see so much more innovation, enterprise, community spirit at this campus and the thought of losing that just tears me apart."

Robert Ryan Carter, a St. Petersburg chamber member, said consolidation would just give Tampa more power and money, with less independence for the regional schools.

Many speakers asked: Why change something that isn't broken? They questioned why the proposal was introduced without prior community discussion, and why it must keep moving forward while so many in Pinellas are asking questions. They said Tampa hadn't earned their trust.

"I found a neocolonial system when I came here, a neglected campus," said Steve Rich, a former USF St. Petersburg administrator. "People put their blood on the table for that accreditation."

Even the best of intentions, he said, won't guarantee that leaders allow St. Petersburg to maintain its partial autonomy.

Some officials, such as chamber leader Chris Steinocher, said the proposal could end up being a positive for the city and county, but that, as it stands, its potential remains uncertain. He and others asked for deeper studies, more talks and more time.

"Don't lose the faith," he said. "Don't lose the fight."

After listening for about an hour, Rep. Peters said she, too, was disappointed to learn about the proposal only when it appeared in House Bill 423 last month, rather than in delegation meetings last fall. She told the crowd she was truly sorry they weren't afforded a chance to weigh in sooner in the process and echoed their memory of USF St. Petersburg as "the redheaded stepchild" that was denied resources.

"I think the leaders of St. Petersburg really knew what they were doing when they pushed to make this independent," she said.

If Sprowls and his allies don't remove the proposal, she said, she hopes they would at least amend it. She proposed audits and annual reports holding Tampa leaders accountable in budgeting across campuses.

"I will be loud. I will be very, very loud on the floor," she said.

To get up to speed on the developments, here's a list of Tampa Bay Times coverage so far:

Jan. 16: In major shift, House bill would turn three USF universities into one

Jan. 17: USF consolidation proposal gets no pushback in Florida House committee

Jan. 18: In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

Jan. 19: USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

Jan. 24: USF President Genshaft sees "significant benefits" in consolidation proposal

Jan. 25: Another thumbs-up for USF consolidation plan, now from Florida's higher education board

Jan. 26: Opposition to USF consolidation proposal simmers in St. Petersburg

Feb. 6: USF consolidation proposal advances another step in Florida House

Feb. 9: As USF raises its standards, can a B student still get in?

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