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Politics

Backroom Briefing: Top Notch and Ready for Reform

March 16, 2017 - 2:15pm

Award winning or in need of reform?

At this point, it looks like both, as the Florida Senate this week moved forward with a plan (SB 374) to overhaul the state college system, while two of the colleges won national awards recognizing their work.

On Tuesday, the Aspen Institute designated Broward College and Indian River State College as "finalists with distinction," essentially the top runner-up award in a national competition recognizing the best community colleges in the nation. Each school will receive $100,000 in Aspen Prize money.

"I am incredibly proud that out of nearly 1,000 colleges throughout the country, two of our Florida colleges have once again been recognized as national leaders for access, affordability and student success," state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said.

It's not the first time that Florida colleges have been recognized. Valencia College won the top Aspen award in 2011, followed by Santa Fe College's win in 2015.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made higher-education reform a priority, has acknowledged the top-performing Florida schools, while saying the legislation is aimed at elevating the entire 28-school system by refocusing colleges "on their core mission," which is awarding two-year degrees with students then moving on to state universities.

The Senate legislation would cap enrollment in four-year programs in the state college system, while creating a State Board of Community Colleges to oversee the schools.

"With this distinct mission, separate from the role of our K-12 and state university systems, our nationally recognized community colleges deserve their own coordinating board to advocate for the success of the system," Negron said.

TRUMPING THE ARMY CORPS?

Negron is banking on the owner of a certain waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach for help with a new reservoir.
 
Negron said Wednesday he sees no need to change his pursuit of 60,000 acres of farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area, after Col. Jason Kirk, the Florida commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, indicated there were no plans to speed up federally planned work on a water-storage area south of Lake Okeechobee.
 
But Negron said he's also looking for President Donald Trump to make changes that would benefit his controversial plan, which involves building a reservoir to alleviate problems with polluted water being released from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
 
"The Army Corps is not the final arbiter on water policy in Florida," Negron told reporters Wednesday.
 
"I know there is a new administration in Washington," he added. "I expect to have new leadership in many positions at the Army Corps."
 
The latest exchange on the reservoir --- opposed by sugar farmers and many local politicians on the south side of the lake --- came as lobbying for and against the proposal continues to grow in the state Capitol.
 
The South Florida Water Management District was quick to capitalize on Kirk's comments to maintain "the optimal sequence of restoration activities" involving the Everglades.
 
"Heard. Understood. Acknowledged. And Appreciated,” water-management district Chairman Dan O'Keefe said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “The Corps' approach is the logical way to restore the Everglades. Attempting to allocate billions of dollars to a single project, outside of the publicly vetted and approved IDS sequence (a schedule of Everglades-related projects), would set restoration efforts back and provide more uncertainty for currently requested funding.”
 
Meanwhile, the Everglades Foundation, which backs the reservoir, brought a group of tourism and aquaculture business owners from throughout South Florida to Tallahassee to discuss with legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott the impact that deteriorating water quality has on jobs and the economy.
 
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, after meeting with Scott, called Kirk's statement "ho hum."
 
"It's a status quo," Eikenberg said. "Today was the news items. We've got folks working on this and we can see it moving. … What Floridians want, what business leaders want, they want action, they want to stop seeing toxic blue-green algae."
 
Negron's proposal (SB 10), now called the "Coast-to-Coast Comprehensive Water Resource Program,” would require the federal government to cover half the projected $2.4 billion cost of the reservoir.

In an effort to draw more legislative support, the measure now includes water projects related to the St. Johns River, the Indian River Lagoon and the Florida Keys and would expand the ability of wastewater-treatment facilities to recycle water.

"We'll certainly work with the Army Corps as one of the organizations that's involved in the process," Negron said. "But ultimately it's up to the Legislature as the elected representatives of the people to determine water policy."

TWEET OF THE WEEK: "I was trying to explain to @MagicJohnson that I could take him one-on-one, but he wasn't accepting my argument." --- Sen. Rob Bradley (@Rob_Bradley), after meeting with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers great, who was in Tallahassee this week lobbying lawmakers about health-care coverage.

 


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