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USF student fees with state laws, without student voice

Student Government’s usual rankling with administrators over student fees had an extra dash of vitriol this year, as SG members balked at changes to committee process that divvied up more than $1 million in proposed increases to student access fees.

Top administrators in Student Affairs contended the change in the process – from one super-committee that jointly recommended changes to the three student access fees for health, athletics, and activity and service to three committees that independently considered each fee – avoided a possible conflict with state laws, but SG members said the new system, coupled with hastily convened meetings, had taken the decision-making out of hands of the committees and the students who vote on the committees.

“I think it’s an insult to the students,” said Justin Hall, chief of staff for SG’s Executive Branch, who was one of three students that sat on the committees. “It’s a crock, and it’s ridiculous how they’ve disregarded the voice of the students in the whole process.”

Under Florida law, a committee composed of at least one-half students appointed by the student body president must convene annually to discuss any changes to the three student access fees: the activity and service fee, which covers the departments under the umbrella of student government, the student health fee, which funds the campus health clinic, and an athletic fee, which goes to the athletic department. The law caps the total increase in the three fees at $1.35 per credit hour, or 5 percent of fees now charged to students.

For the past two years, a super-committee composed of six students and six administrators met to consider proposed increases to all three fees.

This year, committees composed of three students and three administrators met separately to consider each fee. The same three students sat on the committees, but the sitting administrators differed for each.

“From my perspective, there was very little intercommunication between the committees, aside from asking them when they were holding their meetings,” said Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies Glen Besterfield, who chaired the A&S fee committee.

Hall and other SG leaders said the disconnect between the committees caused disjointed recommendations.

The fee hikes that came out of each committee Oct. 9 – a 75-cent increase in the activity and service fee, a 98-cent increase in the athletics fee, and no increase in the student health fee – totaled $1.73, 38 cents more than the $1.35 cap imposed by state laws.

Coupled with a 75-cent increase to student fees for transportation and parking access, the $1.35 increase, which now seems a foregone conclusion, would jack up student fees for Fall 2008 by $2.10 per credit hour, or an additional $31.50 for a student enrolled for 15-credit hours. Students now pay $7.93 in health fees, $10.52 to athletics, and $8.42 in A&S fees.

Hall bristled at the hikes, which for the fifth straight year met or exceeded the caps created by state laws.

“We’d discussed making it lower, since there was already pressure on students from the increase in the transportation fee, but administrators in Student Affairs made it very clear that the fee would be raised to the maximum amount,” Hall said.

The transportation access fee was last raised in the 2003-2004 academic year. It went up 25 cents, 50 cents less than the hike now proposed. That year no raise was made to any of the three access fees.

Though the administrative representatives differed, the presence of the same three students on each committee ensured the meetings weren’t held in a vacuum, said Student Affairs Business Director Fairfax Vickers, who took minutes at all of the meetings.

“The three students had knowledge of what each proposal would be,” Vickers said. “Opportunities were there to communicate and make sure the recommendations going forward were appropriate and in students’ best interests.”

The University’s governing body, the Board of Trustees, will consider the committees proposal at their Dec. 6 meeting.

The BOT can juggle the distribution of fees, but the last two years, when an increase in line with the cap came out of the super-committee, its recommendations have stood.

But if the hikes approved on Oct. 9 by this year’s fee committees make it to the BOT, its members will have to make their own call about how to divide the fee increases.

“The BOT will have to whittle it down,” said Besterfield. “It has to be changed by somebody.”

SG Attorney General Stephen Kowski, who sat in on the committees, said he worried some of the power to decide the fees could shift to USF President Judy Genshaft’s cabinet, who will meet Thursday with Genshaft, student body President Garin Flowers and the three student members on the fee committees to review the committee’s recommendations before they go to the BOT in December.

“Ultimately, our biggest concern is the president’s Cabinet would be able to arbitrarily decide what our fees would be,” Kowski said. “There is nothing in the law that says the president’s Cabinet must meet to consider these fees.”

The law dictates the University president and student body president must sign off on the committees’ recommendations, but makes no mention of the president’s Cabinet.

Talks within the president’s Cabinet this summer raised questions about whether convening only one committee violated state laws, Vickers said.

An aide in Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office said the super-committee was permissible under the law, but that room exists for interpretation.

Former Associate VP of Student Affairs Tom Miller created the super-committee, and it was informally adopted in 2005.

The intent was to make sure all fees received consistent review and to streamline the committee process, said SG adviser and business manager David Armstrong, adding he had sent drafts of a formal policy change to Student Affairs, but no formal review of the super-committee was considered.

“With separate committees the fees are truly in competition with one another,” Armstrong said. “When there’s one committee reviewing all three fees it really puts the power in the committee’s hands.”

Representatives from Athletics, Student Health Services and Student Government made proposals to fee committees for increases to the athletic fee, student health fee, and activity and service fees, respectively.

Athletics:

Request: About $900,000 from 98-cent per credit hour increase to athletics fee

What it would cover: • Study to decide whether to renovate or re-build the Sun Dome – $200,000• Lost revenue from ticket sales for 4,500 general admission seats at Raymond James that could potentially be converted student seats – $540,000• Increased costs of scholarships for athletes from a potential 5 percent tuition increase – $165,000

Committee Recommendation: 98-cent increase in athletics fee

Student Government:

Request:About $700,000 from a 75-cent per credit hour increase to activity and service fee

What it would cover:• Increased operating costs and larger facilities and equipment for WBUL and SG Computer Services in new Marshall Center – about $300,000• Repairs to Campus Recreation pool – about $400,000

Committee Reccomendation:75-cent increase to A&S fee

Student Health Services:

Request: About $500,000 from a 64-cent per credit hour increase to student health fee

What it would cover: • Money to replenish SHS reserve funds, which have been drained to cover a negative bottom line the last three years – $111,000• New medical and laboratory equipment and document- imaging system to digitize student records – about $400,000

Committee Recommendation: No increase in student health fee

David Guidi can be reached at (813) 974-1888 or oracleguidi@gmail.com.