Senate president requests inquiry into HawCC student fees


Complaints from Hawaii Community College students alleging misuse of student fees spurred state Senate President Donna Mercado Kim to request a review by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents.

For years, HawCC and University of Hawaii at Hilo students had shared facilities and recreation services. Students on both campuses paid fees to cover those services, with HawCC students paying $67 a semester in fees for access, including a $19 news publication fee, an $18 student activity fee, an $18 student government fee, a $7 Campus Center fee, and a $5 recreation fee.

In January 2013, the agreement between the campuses’ student organizations was dissolved, according to Jason Cifra, HawCC’s vice chancellor for student affairs.

“We saw that we were sending a lot of money to UH-Hilo, but we didn’t know how much usage our students were getting out of it,” he said.

Cifra said he and student leaders agreed to end the sharing agreement in order to conserve the fees HawCC students continue to pay to be applied to providing HawCC campus-specific programs and services. However, that left students without access to certain services, or in some cases without access unless they are willing to pay additional “per-use” fees on top of the fees they already pay at the beginning of each semester.

Areas such as the student radio station, recreation facilities, UH’s campus center or a subscription to the Ke Kalahea student news magazine have all been affected.

From fiscal year 2013 through March 31 of fiscal year 2014, HawCC billed students for more than $500,000 in fees that were not all subsequently spent to provide the student services, and that doesn’t sit right with several former members of the school’s student government, who say they lost their leadership roles as a result of their inquiries into the student fees and other matters involving Student Council accounts.

“We are demanding an audit of the student fee accounts,” said David Canning, former student activities treasurer who was removed from his position last year.

Canning, as well as the treasurer who replaced him, Marieta Carrino, and former council President Eric Aranug, say they were all voted out of office in retaliation for asking questions and stepping outside the chain of command when they submitted requests for documents to the school’s chancellor and other administrators after not receiving responses to previous requests to the student affairs office.

“We want to correct this problem,” Carrino said. “We want the school to be accountable to the students. This has been going on for too long, and it’s gotta stop. This is corruption.”

The three say various student leaders submitted during the last couple of years written requests for full documentation on student fee accounts, including receipts for services provided, but those requests have largely gone unanswered.

Last week, Cifra told the Tribune-Herald he was not aware of the students’ concerns until this March. In addition, he said he does not control student accounts, and merely acts as a facilitator and advisor to the council. He argues students still have access to UH-Hilo recreation and campus center facilities, although he admits in some cases HawCC students might have to pay higher per-use fees for some services.

Ultimately, he added, the move away from UH-Hilo is an effort to help HawCC students get more campus services for their money, not less, stressing it was a decision voted on by the entire student council.

“This is something we all agreed on,” he said.

He said that while during the last year and a half much of the student fees paid by students have not been spent, he expects by the end of the year to spend all that was collected through the academic year, as well as “dipping into the reserves.”

“We assume the students will get direct usage of these funds,” he said.

Cifra added administrators do not plan on changing the way student fees are charged or spent.

Meanwhile, the three former council members’ complaints piqued the interest of the state Senate president, who sent a letter last week to University of Hawaii Board of Regents Chairman John C. Holzman concerning the matter. In her letter, she refers to formerly bringing up similar concerns about UH’s West Oahu campus, which ultimately led to students being refunded money for non-existent services for which they were charged.

“Hawaii Community College students are facing a very similar situation where fees are being charged for services not available to them,” she wrote. “… Our students should not have to pay for services that are not available to them at the time of collection.”

She added HawCC’s banking of the student funds results in “carrying over balances of tens of thousands of dollars each year ad not spending it on the student government and student activities as advertised. Our students deserve better than to be charged fees that end up sitting idly in an account going unspent. As the policy makers, I request that the Board of Regents review the basis in which these fees are charged and ensure that our students are getting what they pay for.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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