May 15, 2019
State Transparency Board Says Colleges Should Allow Public Comment

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council has voted to add holding public comment periods as a best practice for governing boards meetings of Virginia’s public colleges and universities when considering tuition and fee increases, and include the need for public comment in training.  The motion by Delegate Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, was approved unanimously after the Council considered legislation pertaining to public comment requirements for public bodies during its October 17 meeting.

House Bill 1101 would have required every public body to afford an opportunity for comment during any open meeting, but carve out an exception for Boards of Visitors, who are the governing bodies for public institutions of higher education in Virginia.  Before final action, Stacie Gordon, State Advocacy Manager at Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, urged the Council to amend the bill to remove the exemption for governing boards of Virginia's public colleges and universities.

“Rate-setting is one of the most important and consequential responsibilities that any appointed board possesses,” Gordon said.  “But currently, the decision to raise tuition and fees on students of Virginia colleges and universities is done without any required public input.”

In just the past year, undergraduate tuition and fee rates at Virginia’s public colleges and universities increased 5.3 percent, and jumped a whopping 79 percent in the past decade.

“The fact that student and parent consumers have no say in rate-setting at some of Virginia’s largest enterprises is an exception of the law that defies logic, especially considering that other appointed boards and commissions, including the Milk Commission and the Virginia Aviation Board, are required by law to hold public comment periods” she said.  “It’s simply wrong to exempt Boards of Visitors of Virginia’s public colleges and universities from being held to the same standards of governance and accountability that we expect of other public bodies that serve our great Commonwealth.”

“You guys highlighted a really big problem,” said state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross and chairman of the FOIA advisory council.  “I had no idea they didn’t allow people to speak when they’re really affecting people’s futures.”

The Council’s new stance on public comment during meetings of governing boards at Virginia’s public colleges and universities builds on momentum the issue gained earlier this year.  During the 2018 General Assembly session Delegate Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, introduced legislation that would have required governing boards at Virginia’s public colleges and universities to hold public comment periods prior to voting on tuition and fee increases.  House Bill 1473 was passed unanimously by the House of Delegates, but killed by a 7-6 vote in the Senate Finance Committee.