The University of West Florida’s Board of Trustees voted on Wednesday to return about $2.4 million requested by the Florida Board of Governors, bringing closure to a disagreement between the two boards over fiscal management of the now defunct Complete Florida Plus online learning program.
State education officials had voiced concerns in September of last year about UWF’s withdrawal of unclaimed administrative fees from previous years out of carry forward funds, according to the Pensacola News Journal.
“Our position is that the draws were appropriate, and in keeping with the known guidance on the matter,” said board chairman Dave Cleveland. “And that we had always remained under the 5 percent [administrative] cost maximum that we believe strongly that’s duly allowed by the provision.”
In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the budget for the program – $29.4 million. It provided online platforms that have become more prominent, as students and teachers adopt distance learning in the pandemic. In a letter to be sent to the Florida Board of Governors, the prevailing sentiment of UWF’s Board appears to be that it’s time to move on.
“We’re just about to hit the one-year anniversary of dealing with this issue, so it’s been laboring – and it’s time to get it taken care of,” Cleveland said. “Over the course of that year, there have been reports from the auditor general and meeting associated with that, letter responses to that. There have been independent auditor reports.”
One of the two dissenting votes on the resolution to repay the money came from trustee Sherry Schneider.
“We did the work and in the end were not paid for the services rendered,” said Schneider. “To my mind, we’re still owed that money. We give the money back, we’ve lost our negotiating leverage. And I feel that this money is coming at the cost to the faculty and the students.
Vice Chair Suzanne Lewis said as a result of the audit, investigation and reporting, things are being done differently, such as new regulations now in place to prevent a repeat of such events.
“We have to move forward with the university being intact with its great reputation for its size and its place in the state,” Lewis said. “No one — especially during these times — want to see this university lose critical funding.”
UWF President Martha Saunders is hoping that returning the funding can bring about closure.
“It has drawn out far too long; it has become a distraction and a pull on our human resources,” Saunders said. “And it was just time to move forward. We have far more pressing issues before us — pandemic, and making sure we’re serving our students.”
The abolishment of Complete Florida-Plus and subsequent refund are not expected to affect any ongoing programs at West Florida, according to Saunders, who became president after the program began operation.
“The funding that the CFO has tentatively identified is coming from dormant accounts,” said Saunders. “They’re currently not supporting programs. We were very clear we cannot be depriving active, ongoing programs to do this.”
Can a program similar to Complete Florida be established again someday, in some form? Saunders hopes so, at another university, perhaps a state college, or by one of the governing boards.
“The part that was so critical — and we use it too — is the library services,” Saunders said. “All of the digital library services is important to the whole state, so those do need to be preserved. What it would look like, I just don’t know.”
Still to be decided is how UWF will pay back the $2.4 million. The leading candidates appear to be incremental payments, or one lump sum.