For the second time in three years, $2.5 million of Polk State College’s recurring operational budget – more than 5 percent of the College’s total budget – is at risk of veto and the College is requesting the community’s support to protect these funds to ensure the Polk State JD Alexander Center, Polk State’s Lake Wales Campus, may continue to serve southeast Polk County with quality higher education and workforce training.
The 2019 Legislative Session concluded May 4 with the House and Senate approving the state budget, which now awaits Governor Ron DeSantis’ review and approval. The $2.5 million was originally allocated to Polk State in 2011 to expand educational opportunities to residents in rural southeast Polk County and were successfully defended and subsequently restored during the 2017 Special Legislative Session. It is vulnerable to veto because it is listed as a separate line item rather than nested within the College’s main operational fund. This line item is one of 14 Florida College System items listed separately.
This line item, titled Polk State College Access to Academic and Workforce Programs, aligns with Governor DeSantis’ initiative Charting a Course for Florida to Become Number 1 in the Nation in Workforce Education by 2030 and ensuring Florida Students are Prepared for the Jobs of the Future by providing access to affordable, quality higher education and workforce training in a largely underserved region. It is for this reason, that the College would like to ensure that the Governor hears from the community about how these funds achieve his goals for education and the state of Florida.
Polk State College Access to Academic and Workforce Programs includes funds to operate and staff the Polk State JD Alexander Center, the College’s Lake Wales Campus, which serves an average of 1,100 students each year from southeast Polk including Lake Wales, Babson Park, Fort Meade, and Frostproof. Lake Wales Campus students comprise 10 percent of the College’s total student population and are able to achieve associate degrees, workforce baccalaureate degrees, and workforce certifications that would be out of reach for many without the proximity of the campus.
“It is critical for the College to receive these funds. For many in rural southeast Polk, the Lake Wales Campus is the only affordable and reasonably located facility for them to pursue higher education and career advancement.”
— Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti
“It is critical for the College to receive these funds,” Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said. “For many in rural southeast Polk, the Lake Wales Campus is the only affordable and reasonably located facility for them to pursue higher education and career advancement.”
The Lake Wales Campus serves a diverse student population that is 66 percent female and 53 percent ethnic minority in a region where more than 38 percent of residents are categorized as “transportation disadvantaged.”
Valentina Gutierrez, for example, has balanced up to three jobs and her studies as the sole provider for her parents and two brothers. Her father even sold one of the family’s vehicles to help her pay for college, meaning a commute further from her family’s home in Lakes Wales would create a greater challenge for Gutierrez, who often shares her vehicle with her siblings and parents.
“My family isn’t good financially and going to college seemed nearly impossible,” said Gutierrez, who receives financial aid as a low-income, first-generation-in-college student. Forty-four percent of students at the Lake Wales Campus receive federal need-based Pell Grants. “The Polk State JD Alexander Center has made it possible.”
She achieved her Polk State Associate in Arts degree with honors in 2016 and is pursuing a Polk State Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision and Management with aspirations to find a “full-time, good-paying job so that I can make life easier for my family,” she said.
Gutierrez is on track to achieving that goal like many students who have transformed their lives thanks to the proximity, affordability, and flexibility offered at the Lake Wales Campus. Polk State Bachelor of Applied Science in Supervision Management graduates have an 87 percent job-placement and continuing-education rate and earn an average salary of $41,672 annually.
Since the Lake Wales Campus opened in 2009, more than 500 southeast Polk students have earned their Polk State degrees, resulting in an estimated annual additional income of more than $12 million for these graduates and their families.
Destiny Bruno, who achieved her Polk State Associate in Science in Nursing degree in 2018, illustrates how students achieve a better quality of life with the opportunities available to them at the Lake Wales Campus.
When Bruno started on her degree in 2016, she had a newborn and was without the financial means to afford a car or transportation.
“This place gave me my start,” she said. “I could walk to the Lake Wales Campus and work toward bettering myself and achieving my dreams.”
Bruno joined the federal work-study program and worked part-time at the Lake Wales Campus to afford classes, books, and ultimately a car. She is now able to commute to her job at Winter Haven Hospital and is enjoying successful employment like nearly 100 percent of Polk State Associate in Science in Nursing graduates who are employed in healthcare.
“My family isn’t good financially and going to college seemed nearly impossible. The Polk State JD Alexander Center has made it possible.”
— Student Valentina Gutierrez
“We will continue to advocate for our students to ensure that all residents of Polk County have access to Polk State’s quality higher education and workforce training that allows them career mobility and increased quality of life,” Falconetti said. “Polk State’s ability to reach all areas of our county with quality higher education and workforce training is pivotal to the economic growth of Polk County.”
The College respectfully requests members of the community contact Governor DeSantis to request his support of Polk State College Access to Academic and Workforce Programs to ensure access to workforce education and academic programs that allow residents of southeast Polk to achieve their degrees and career advancement. Governor DeSantis’ office may be reached by calling 850-717-9337 or writing to 400 S. Monroe Street Tallahassee, FL 32399 or www.flgov.com/email-the-governor.
“Polk State College is grateful to the Polk County Legislative Delegation for its support during the 2019 Legislative Session and is dedicated to working closely with members of our local delegation to ensure Governor DeSantis is aware of the criticality of preserving Polk State’s Lake Wales Campus,” Falconetti said.
“Governor DeSantis has illustrated his understanding of the critical role state colleges play in the economic development of Florida and we turn to him for his leadership and support in preserving the Polk State JD Alexander Center to ensure higher education and workforce needs are met in rural southeast Polk County and beyond.”