SCF community ready for a solution to Hafner situation

BRADENTON -- After months of tense and public battles between State College of Florida trustees and President Lars Hafner over the leadership of the college, the community seems weary, but ready for a solution.

Trustees have spoken about a desire to move forward after deciding to pursue a settlement agreement with Hafner at a meeting Tuesday. The college seems poised for a change, releasing a statement prohibiting staff from commenting on the matter. College freshman Kaden Loccisano said he felt sad as he watched Hafner packing boxes into his car the other day and feels certain the president will soon be leaving.

Whatever recommendation comes from meetings between Hafner's attorney and counsel the trustees hired specifically for this task, some say its time for their focus to return to the school itself.

"It's felt at times like parents fighting during an acrimonious divorce and we have all been caught in the middle," said SCF Faculty Senate President Daniel Fuerstman.

On Tuesday, Fuerstman and other staff filled a large auditorium at the Lakewood Ranch campus to hear trustees announce that they would attempt to negotiate with Hafner.

There was a "historic" sense to the event, Fuerstman said, and a hope that the issue could soon be resolved.

"There is substantial interest in being able to return our focus as an institution to the students and the things we are doing, and can do, to continue to provide a quality education," Fuerstman said.

It hasn't taken long for Eric Robinson, the new trustee Gov. Rick Scott appointed to fill the vacant spot once held by Venice businessman C.J. Fishman, to sense this desire, too. He says he's talked to foundation members, past

trustees and members of the student government and has heard the same things over and over again:

We need to get past this. How do we get past this? Is this damaging our brand?

"That's a common theme whether you are on one side of the issue or the other," Robinson said. "This isn't an individual thing -- it affects the community."

On Wednesday, school officials said teachers, staff and administration should not speak about the issue. A statement read: "Because of the board's decision and ongoing negotiations, it is inappropriate for SCF employees to comment."

A solution could come as soon as Oct. 30, the date the board decided counsel must come to an agreement.

"The attorneys would reach some recommendations, which they would share with me," Chairman Carlos Beruff said. "And if I believe that it is in the best interest of the college, I would proffer that to the board for their consideration on Tuesday."

The board will have to decide to approve or reject the recommendation.

Beruff said Wednesday that the decision to move in this direction came out of discussions between college attorney Steve Prouty, Hafner and his attorney, and himself.

Beruff said he's met with Prouty and Kunkel, Miller & Hament attorneys John Hament and Nikhil Joshi to decide the direction they hope the negotiation meetings take. He would not elaborate on what solution he thought the board would find agreeable, but said he thought the meetings will be best for everyone.

"I think it's in the best interests of the parties," Beruff said. "It's logical that we try to resolve things in a mutually agreeable fashion."

Some trustees, including Beruff, have butted heads with Hafner since 2011, when Gov. Rick Scott appointed the majority of the current board.

Current and past trustees have clashed over the representation of costs for school construction projects, such as tennis courts and a collegiate school. Some trustees claim that costs have ballooned and projects expanded under Hafner's leadership. Others say most projects were approved by the former board, who had a full understanding of Hafner's plans.

Under Hafner's watch, Manatee Community College became State College of Florida in 2009, the same year the college was included among the top 100 associate degree producers in the nation in Community College Week magazine.

He brought several four-year programs to the college, including a nursing program that graduated its first class of RNs with four-year baccalaureate degrees in May 2011.

But other decisions have hurt his relationship with the board and the public, such as when he requested a Cadillac Escalade for executive use in 2011, the same year tuition and fees increased by 8 percent. Hafner currently makes $323,000 a year.

Loccisano, 18, who was hanging out with a friend at the Bradenton campus Wednesday afternoon said that Hafner had been a great president, and the focus on the conflict has been disheartening.

He didn't have any doubt as to what's going to happen next, though. "I think they are definitely going to buy him out," Loccisano said.

Fuerstman said what teachers want most is clarity.

"For five months we've been living under a cloud of not knowing what's going to happen," Furstman said. "I feel like most people feel there is potentially an end resolution in sight, and that we may be able to move forward as an institution."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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