Whenever government considers raising taxes or fees, we as citizens expect those discussions to occur in the Sunshine. We also expect an opportunity to be heard and to hear what our elected officials are saying. And we expect safeguards to monitor what they are doing.
So why should university students not enjoy the same participation and accountability in regards to student activity and service fees? You might think, why should I care, it can’t be much money. Consider this: at USF Polytechnic in Lakeland, a branch campus of roughly 1,400 students, those fees amount to more than half a million dollars a year.
The story behind fee hikes began during the legislative session of 2010, when lawmakers passed a bill allowing state universities to increase activity and service fees, health fees and athletic fees by 15 percent, or up to the statewide university average, whichever was greater.
In Lakeland, then-Regional Chancellor Marshall Goodman appointed a “Fee Committee” of three administrative members and three students to review the opportunity. The committee met on May 7, without notice to the student Senate or the students themselves, and without an agenda.
What’s interesting about the date, besides the fact that most students had left for the summer break, was that the bill was not signed into law until May 28, and did not take effect until July 1.
Why the rush? Why not involve students? How did Marshall Goodman get a jump start on this legislation? Was it his idea? Was this a way to fund buildings using student activity fees instead of limited PECO funds? Is this happening on other campuses?
While I don’t have all the answers, the facts paint a suspicious picture. Spring classes ended April 30, with final exams ending May 7, which means virtually no students remained on campus when the committee voted to raise their fees.
A skimpy half-page of minutes from the meeting shows no time or location, or even who took the minutes. It does list the three staff members and the three students who receive a small salary for their work in student government. The three students also have been given paid positions in student affairs.
At the time, USF Poly’s fee was $8.65 per credit hour, but quickly and quietly, these six individuals raised the rate to the maximum allowable -- $28.83 per credit hour, a 233 percent increase.
Goodman’s administration says students agreed the increase should largely pay to construct a new Wellness Center on the fledgling campus. But never did the fee increase, or the plan to spend the money on construction, go to the student Senate.
Now with USF Poly possibly becoming a separate university called Florida Polytech, the bill before the Governor also would transfer the fees paid by USF students. In total, $1.7 million has been taken from USF students for the Polytech building. Worse, USF students in Lakeland are expected to continue paying the inflated fees from which they will never benefit.
Goodman’s administration never gave the students a straight answer. Now, the interim regional chancellor and USF’s main campus are conducting an internal audit. The students, meanwhile, have discussed the matter with legal counsel.
Before the situation gets murkier, these dollars should revert back to USF students for a use that is determined in open meetings by elected student senators.
This is the United States of America, where we believe in a representative form of government. What kind of message are we sending our future leaders?
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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