DeSantis kills online learning program amid virus resurgence

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Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a conference. | AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE – With a stroke of his veto pen, Gov. Ron DeSantis wiped out the entire $29.4 million budget for a suite of online education services that have become critical to students and faculty during the Covid-19 outbreak.

The move, barring action before midnight Tuesday, will kill the Complete Florida Plus Program, an array of technology systems that faculty, staff and students throughout Florida rely on, never more so than now, in the midst of a pandemic that has amplified reliance on distance learning. The cuts include a database of online courses and an online library service that provides 17 million books to 1.3 million students, faculty and staff.

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At least 2,000 adult learners could be cut off from their scholarships and school accreditation could even be at risk without the resources housed under Complete Florida, which are used by students at high schools, state colleges and universities. Some 150 employees in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Pensacola stand to lose their jobs.

DeSantis, whose office declined to comment on the cut, on Monday vetoed $1 billion from Florida’s 2020-21 budget as the state attempts to beat back a resurgence of the viral outbreak, which has sickened 152,434 people and killed 3,505 in one of the country’s hottest Covid-19 zones.

The governor’s office and the Department of Education have been publicly silent about the sudden, sweeping Complete Florida veto, leading some higher education officials to wonder if there had been some sort of mistake.

“This would be one of the biggest negative impacts in higher education in the last couple decades,” said Tom Messner, executive dean of Library Learning Commons at Florida State College at Jacksonville. “It just seems like an error.”

When asked about the justification for the veto and whether there was a plan to replicate Complete Florida’s services, DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré deferred to the Department of Education.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DOE, the agency that oversees the Florida College System, deferred to the State University System Board of Governors and the University of West Florida, which oversees Complete Florida.

Renee Fargason, director of strategic communications and advocacy for the Board of Governors, declined to comment about the Complete Florida veto as of noon Tuesday.

“We are currently seeking clarification on the veto of this statewide program that provides resources to more than 100 public universities, public colleges and K-12 school districts” Megan Gonzalez, a spokesperson for UWF, wrote in a statement to POLITICO.

At midnight, when the 2020-21 budget year kicks in, Complete Florida will be taken offline without a new funding source. The program will have no budget or spending authority, leaving no way to staff help desks or carry out daily payments for services.

The Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative, a virtual campus program that hosts online journals, e-books and other resources for schools across the state, would be defunded, as would the Complete Florida Degree Program that helps former college students return to school to complete their degree.

Library databases would go offline in the middle of the college summer semester, which is being held largely online as college campuses remain closed to students during the Covid-19 outbreak. The veto could force schools to come up with their own programs on the fly, putting them at risk of losing access to the “appropriate electronic resources” that are required by the state’s accreditation board.

Complete Florida and its budget have been in the spotlight since library administrators last year accused UWF of siphoning money from state programs, a complaint that prompted an audit overseen by the BOG and the attention of lawmakers.

The Florida Senate earlier this year carved the Plus Program out of UWF’s budget, and DeSantis even proposed withholding $5 million from the program contingent on the audit’s findings, an idea that ultimately didn’t make the cut.

The BOG-led audit still still under way. An Auditor General report in March challenged the legality of UWF’s financial management over Complete Florida. That audit slammed UWF, declaring that the university should return $2.4 million to the programs it tapped, including Florida Virtual Campus, a host for online library resources at Florida’s 40 public colleges and universities.

UWF “strongly disagrees” with the Florida Auditor General’s findings, contesting the school had every right to tap excess Complete Florida funds, or carry forward money, to pay administrative overhead.

Legislation was floated to pull Complete Florida away from UWF in 2020-21, but the proposal never got off the ground. The Department of Education has been a recommended landing spot for some of its programs.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated when Renee Fargason declined to comment.

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