Arizona Students’ Association sues Regents over funding loss

The Arizona Students’ Association announced Tuesday that it will be pursuing a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents following the board’s Thursday decision to give students the opportunity to opt-in, not opt-out, of a semesterly fee funding the student advocacy group.

As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, ABOR had not been legally served notice of the suit, board spokeswoman Sarah Harper said.

“The Arizona Board of Regents has not been served notice of this lawsuit and therefore has no comment,” Harper said.

The former fee model collected $2 each semester and accompanied tuition and other fees that are automatically charged to students. Funding from the fee came to about $600,000 annually, $300,000 of which was paid by ASU students.

It was possible for students to receive a refund by filing a request, but few did.

Brendan Pantilione, one of ASU’s representatives on ASA’s student-run Board of Directors, said the association filed the suit to stand up for students.

“We sort of felt like there was no other option at this point,” she said.  “Personally, I’m upset that it had to come to this.”

Pantilione said the Regents sought to change the fee in retaliation for ASA’s support of Proposition 204, a permanent 1-cent sales tax increase which voters did not pass in November.

The revenue from that increase would have provided additional education funding for Arizona students. ASA donated $120,000 of student fee money to its failed campaign.

Pantilione said changing the fee structure to opt-in was not the right way to deal with the situation, and that it could mean a slow death for ASA.

“Our organization exists to protect students, and without this fee, we can’t function effectively.”

She added that ASA was in favor of making it a more clearly stated opt-out fee.

The donation became a large issue in the ASU/ASA controversy that came to a head in late September, when ASU Undergraduate Student Government presidents Mark Naufel, Joseph Grossman, and Jeffrey Hebert voluntarily stepped down from ASA’s board of student directors.

Naufel said ASA made a bad decision to file a lawsuit against ABOR, students’ biggest ally for getting more money for education.

He said while he was on ASA’s board, the organization had around $500,000 of student fee money saved, which will now be used to fight ABOR.

“I honestly think it’s just so selfish on ASA’s part,” Naufel said.

He said ASA should be focusing on getting students’ support now that a final decision has been made on the fee.

Naufel said the lawsuit has derailed plans of cooperation he was making with student body presidents of the other state universities, who stood by ASA during ABOR’s five-month deliberation.

He added that ASU cannot have any association with ASA now that they have cut ties with ABOR.

“You really can’t justify this decision — you really can’t say this is a good choice for students,” Naufel said.

ABOR suspended the fee for the spring 2013 semester at a November meeting.

ASA’s lawsuit contends that this decision could have violated open meeting laws, because the board did not notify the public that a vote would take place.

The Arizona Revised Statutes require public notice of meetings to be given 24 hours in advance, and an agenda must be provided within the same time frame.

ABOR announced a meeting to review a revision to the fee 10 days before it happened.  The agenda lists this review as a discussion, not an action item.

At that meeting, the board decided to suspend the fee for the time being and take final action at its February meeting.

Over the next several months, the board held additional meetings to discuss the fee.

In January, the board’s Executive Committee considered eliminating the fee completely and a proposal from Regent Dennis DeConcini to make it more clearly opt-out when students pay their tuition and fees.

The Committee recommended both proposals to the board for a first reading.

However, when DeConcini’s proposal was shot down, he introduced a proposal to make the fee opt-in, which the regents forwarded to the full board for a vote at their February meeting.

During that meeting, DeConcini’s opt-in proposal was approved.

Students will now have a clear option of whether they would like to donate $2 to ASA when they pay their tuition and fees.

Additionally, the new proposal will require ASA to cover administrative costs of collecting the fee.

In late January, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, introduced a bill in the Arizona Legislature that would require students to consent in writing to the transfer of fee money to outside organizations and bar ABOR from transferring money if it will be used to support political campaigns.

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, introduced a similar bill that would revise existing educational statutes to prohibit state institutions from giving any portion paid as tuition and fees to “political committees.”

The bill’s summary specifically mentions the dispute between ASA and ABOR as part of the background of the bill’s introduction.

The House Higher Education and Workforce Development committee will hear the bill Wednesday.

ASA is organizing against both bills.

 

Reach the reporter at ammedeir@asu.edu or follow her @amy_medeiros