College president public records exemption dies in Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal that would have shielded prospects for top college and university jobs from public scrutiny during presidential searches, presenting the legislation with a rare public death in the last week of session.

The policy, which requires a supermajority vote to pass, easily cleared the House before yet again falling short in the upper chamber, as it did in 2020. Only one Senate Democrat supported the bill that ultimately failed by two votes, with the minority party in opposition.

“Open meetings and public records are a benefit of Florida citizens and taxpayers, and this bill would reduce the transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Victor Torres (D-Orlando).

Lawmakers exhumed the college president public records exemption this session after making serious progress, yet eventually falling short, last session as it has in previous years. Republican legislators pressed for the rule change, contending the shield will help attract the best candidates to Florida without putting their current jobs in jeopardy.

The bill, FL HB997 (21R), would have exempted applicants vying for state college or university president jobs from public record and public meeting requirements. Applicants' personal identifying information would have been keep secret under the legislation, which also required that meetings to find and vet applicants must be closed to the public.

Faculty unions and some Democrats fought against the measure this session and in the past, arguing that the move toward secrecy could lead to education executive posts, positions that have the potential to reshape schools and entire towns, going to a political spoil.

Senators struck down the proposal by a 25-14 vote, just shy of the 27-vote threshold needed to pass a public records exemption in the chamber. House members voted 101-16 in favor of the bill, easily clearing the 80 votes needed for passage.

Under the bill, school officials would have been required to unveil the final group of presidential applicants at least 21 days before a final decision is made. Supporters pointed to this provision when trying to sway the Senate.

“People think this is going to be completely behind closed doors and everyone is going to be unfairly surprised at the end,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), the lone Democrat who supported the legislation.

Last year, the Senate ultimately declined to take up the proposal on the floor, even after lawmakers jockeyed to exclude state colleges as a way to appease the Miami-Dade congregation.