By Beverly R. Muzii
Seminole State College has planned to expand its Altamonte Springs Campus since its opening in 2008, but continuous roadblocks have prevented the success of this project.
On the surface, this is attributed to failed deals between the college and the private companies with which the college has partnered. But a deeper investigation found the more significant reason involves a statewide funding system that has been slowly crumbling.
The Altamonte campus houses the SSC Nursing
Program among others valued by the college. But, over the past decade, the campus has become less functional due to operating overcapacity.
The overcrowding is more than a mere inconvenience; it is also a safety concern, according to Samantha Ciresi, former Student Government Association president at the Altamonte Springs Campus.
She said some everyday hazards include crammed classrooms and chaotic overflow parking lots. Ciresi was particularly taken aback by the parking situation and how difficult it was for her and her classmates to find daily parking.
“I would have to come to campus like 30 minutes early to make sure that I would get parking and to class on time,” she recalled. By 8:30 a.m., she said, the parking lot would have already reached capacity.
Students then had to resort to parking on an empty grass lot adjacent
to the campus that SSC acquired to build the expansion.
Ciresi explained that students “are actually not supposed to park there.”
As SGA president, she was told that the City of Altamonte Springs had previously expressed discontent with students using this empty lot.
“But they can’t really do anything,” Ciresi said. “We have nowhere else to go.”
City of Altamonte Springs officials would neither confirm nor deny ex- pressing concern to the college.
Big Plans Announced
In 2010, the college’s District Board
of Trustees approved the acquisition
of nearly 29 acres adjacent to the
main building on the Altamonte
campus. In order to acquire the land,
which at the time was occupied
by three auto dealerships, Florida’s Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, provided SSC $25 million.
It was not until 2012 that Seminole State College began working with community partners to develop a master plan for the expansion.
The Seminole Scribe reported in 2018 that “the master plan outlined
a nine-phase construction project
to develop eight additional high-rise buildings and new parking structures.” If completed as planned, the new Altamonte campus would be larger in square footage than the other three SSC campuses combined.
So, what happened?
In 2016, the first phase of the plan, which encompassed the construction of a second building was approved. The school had planned to work with a Private-Public Partnership, known as a P3, to finance this project after the Board of Trustees approved it.
However, in the 2018 Scribe report, Dr. Georgia Lorenz, the president of Seminole State College, said the P3 became more problematic than helpful over time.
Under the contract, SSC would
be leasing out a large portion of the building to private companies for 35 to 40 years. This was not ideal in the eyes of the school, Lorenz explained. But, if it meant the project could move forward, then SSC was willing to use the P3.
The project hit a brick wall, though, when one of the largest tenants pulled out of the deal.
The name of the tenant and their reasons for pulling out are not part of public records, but Joseph Mazur, vice
president for business operations and the college’s chief financial officer, said he assumes the company abandoned the contract either because something changed within their company where they could not commit to a long-term partnership, or they simply sought another location to invest in real estate.
Either way, without this tenant or the ability to replace it, the project was no longer “financially feasible.” And the expansion plan stagnated.
SSC, was, however, able to renovate a small building across the street from the main building. It is called the “H Building,” and it houses 20 faculty offices with two additional classrooms.
While the H Building can be considered progress, Ciresi was not satisfied.
“If you look at H building and then you look at how overcrowded the Altamonte Campus is, it doesn’t match up,” she said. “It’s like putting a little Band-Aid over a bullet hole.”
After the P3 fell through in 2016, it took three years for the District Board of Trustees to discuss and approve a new P3 group.
Around the same time, Ciresi was leading a student petition to “signify need for another building on the Altamonte Springs Campus.” The petition gained 454 signatures, with students leaving comments such as, “we are seriously overcapacity,” and “It’s cramped and makes me claustrophobic.”
The possibility for expansion looked bright until March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools and many businesses to become remote, causing the petition to fizzle out and companies to opt-out of investing in real estate, causing the P3 agreement, to again fall through.
Questions About Funding
But SSC is a state-funded public college, which means it receives money from the state to fund construction projects.
However, interviews with school officials and research uncover that Seminole State College has been unable
to pursue expansion without a P3 because of the increasingly depleted supply of funds in PECO, which is the trust fund that provides state funding for renovation and expansion projects in the Florida college and university systems.
Mazur said during a Nov. 20, 2020, interview that PECO is funded in part by the state tax on landline telephones, cable television and electricity. But as more households and businesses discontinue their landlines, quit using cable and decrease their electricity costs, this revenue source is becoming depleted.
For nearly a decade, state economists have been predicting that PECO’s funds will eventually “dry up.”
But they do not have to, according to one lawmaker.
In a November phone interview,
Florida state Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, D-District 30, expressed discontent with the status-quo involving PECO.
She said the issue is not necessarily that PECO funding cannot be reappropriated, but that the Legislature, which has a large Republican majority, is instead focusing on eliminating government spending on public education, choosing to invest more in publicly funded, privately operated charter schools for K-12 education.
“They can get [PECO funding] from the general fund,” Goff-Marcil said, referencing the General Revenue Fund, which consists of all the money received by the state.
“It seems like [Republican legislators] are more interested in getting rid of revenue streams like taxes or any kind of regulation that would bring in funding,” she said. She believes they want to provide money instead to privately operated charter schools.
“The lack of accountability and transparency is staggering,” she said. In Goff-Marcil’s view, the Legislature is both refusing to reallocate PECO funding to a more sustainable revenue source and spending additional money providing public funding to charter schools.
She argues that Legislature is allowing the PECO funds to become exhausted while dipping further into the remaining money to allow charter schools to use the state money for their own development needs.
Republican lawmakers respond that charter schools are public schools. And per state statute, they are correct. But charter schools are supposed
to receive a source of funding independent of PECO called the Charter School Capital Outlay.
The Charter School Capital Outlay is designed to provide charter schools with the money to purchase property; construct school facilities; and renovate, repair and maintain facilities as well as finance other needs that would, in traditional public schools, be funded by PECO.
Even so, according to the Long-Range Financial Outlook Fall 2020 Report, “Under the requirements of section 2023.62, Florida Statutes, the Legislature must choose each year between state and local funding of charter school capital outlay. If the state appropriation for charter school capital outlay does not meet the funding threshold specified in law.”
Unlike Goff-Marcil and Mazur, the state House GOP (led by the speaker, Chris Sprowls, R-District 65) is more optimistic toward the future of PECO.
Sprowls declined an interview, however, his Communications Director Jenna Sarkissian denied that PECO funding is decreasing, instead citing information from House Appropriation staffers that indicates the amount of revenue is increasing. “We are saying that 29% of the
gross receipt tax, which funds the PECO is associated with communication services, 71% of it is coming from utilities,” she said.
Sarkissian also said the Legislature has approved two measures in recent years that increase the amount of money PECO is getting from the gross receipts tax. She added that no bills have been passed regarding the PECO trust fund.
“It’s not like everything is going to come crashing down, because [the communication services tax is] not the only source of revenue,” Sarkissian argued. She also explained that charter schools are receiving money from both the general revenue fund as well as PECO.
Republican leadership in the House attributes the coronavirus pandemic to a decreased amount of revenue.
“The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our state revenues,” Sprowls said through official memos. “The revenue impacts will make our upcoming budget development more challenging than in previous years.”
According to Goff-Marcil, though, there are no “direct sources or quotes referring to how the Florida College System’s allocations, specifically as a part of PECO” will be affected by the pandemic.
And while some state revenues have decreased, there is no evidence that the pandemic has further de- creased the communication service or utility tax revenue.
From September 2019 to Septem- ber of 2020, the amount of revenue from communication services has fluctuated, remaining above the estimated amount every month besides October and November 2019 and June and July of 2020.
Although the utility tax has mostly fallen beneath the estimated amount, this trend began months before the pandemic. And nearly every month since September 2019, the amount of revenue has been less than expected.
But based on the 2020-2021 Budget, the nearly $66 million that was
to be allocated to the Florida College System was reduced to roughly $10.5 million in light of the coronavirus pandemic—the lowest allocation to the Florida College System since the Fiscal Year of 2012-2013.
Two questions remain: If the amount of revenue for PECO is decreasing, then why do Republican Legislators insist that it is not? And if there is money, then where is it going?
Seminole State College approved an expansion to its overcrowded Altamonte Springs campus a decade ago, but it has yet to come to fruition because the school claims it has not been able to receive PECO funding for the project. If there was more money available in PECO, Mazur said, “we would have a building soon- er rather than later.”
Meanwhile, the students at the Altamonte Campus have one request, “make us a priority and help us get the funding that we need.”