Legal experts and government access advocates are raising questions today about a 10 percent tuition hike the City Colleges of Chicago board approved without advance public notice.
The agenda published on the district's Web site prior to yesterday's board meeting made no mention of a tuition increase. It referred only to a "motion of approval of board packet."
The board packet, which the district does not release to the public, included details about the tuition hike.
Experts say the board may have violated the state's Open Meetings Act by failing to notify the public about the increase.
"They are circumventing the letter and spirit of the Open Meetings Act, [which is] to allow people to have the information and to become involved in those deliberations," says Sarah Klaper, an instructor at DePaul University's College of Law and a former attorney with the Citizens Advocacy Center.
The act requires public bodies to publish agendas at least 48 hours before scheduled meetings. While the law doesn't define what has to be listed in an agenda, a state appeals court case in 2002 held that government agencies can only vote on items that are specifically listed on an agenda beforehand.
"General headings such as 'new business' or … 'management and government' are not specific enough," Klaper says.
Dawn Clark Netsch, an emeritus professor of law at Northwestern University, who formerly served as state comptroller, agrees.
"If there's going to be an action on the increase in tuition, it ought to be on the agenda so that those who are concerned, which is practically everyone at the school, would know about it," Netsch says.
"My sense is it certainly is a violation of the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and its requirements for making known what business is going to be on the agenda," Netsch adds.
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was surprised that the district would accidentally omit a tuition increase from the agenda.
"How much tuition is going to be for the next year is among the biggest stories of the year (at public universities) and it is remarkable to me that they would somehow forget," she says.
Under state law, residents could overturn the tuition increase by suing the board for violating the Open Meetings Act, say Klaber and Dalglish.
"My guess is if the public were to make an issue out of it, they'd have to do it all over again," Dalglish says.
The board voted to raise tuition by $7 per credit next summer, and approved increases for the two following years. All told, tuition will climb 24 percent by 2011.
College officials said after yesterday's meeting that failing to list the tuition increase on the agenda was an accidental oversight, because the agenda went through several rounds of revisions.
However, in October, the Daily News reported the board generally doesn't publish specifics about its meetings beforehand. The college district publishes an identical agenda for each month's board meeting, changing only the date.
Following the Daily News article, the city colleges said they would consider posting more detailed agendas before meetings. So far, the district has not made any changes to the agendas published on the website. The district does provide a slightly more detailed agenda to the Daily News several days before each meeting. That agenda did not least the tuition increase, either.
District officials emphasized that they met with many students regarding the tuition increase, including the Student Government Association.
While student government representatives knew a tuition hike was coming, that news didn't necessarily trickle down to the student bodies at each of the seven city colleges.
And even students who knew about the hike wouldn't have known to come to the meeting to speak out, and none did, other than Shamil Clay, who is the student representative on the board.
Students at Harold Washington were surprised to learn Tuesday afternoon that tuition would be going up 10 percent, from $72 to $79 per credit hour, this coming summer.
"I wish they had told us," says art student Kenneth Long, who added that he might have gone to the meeting if he had known in advance that a vote on increasing tuition was going to happen.
Other students took the increase in stride.
"It's still really, really cheap," says math student Casey Craig.
At South Suburban Community College in South Holland, students are "absolutely" made aware of planned tuition changes, says spokesman Pat Rush.
"Our goal is always to keep an open communications line among the board of trustees, the administration here at the college and the student body," he says.
Klaper says the City Colleges should have done a better job of letting students know about the planned tuition increase.
"It's disappointing when a public body decides to take action on any issue, particularly one of serious importance to students, without providing those students with advanced notice and the opportunity to be heard on the issue," Klaper says.
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.