Attorney General's Opinion 1980-81 #058



May 29, 1981

Dr. James H. Hinson, Jr.,
Chancellor Virginia Community College System

80-81 58

You ask whether H.B. 899 of the 1981 General Assembly, amending the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (hereinafter the "Act") (§2.1-344 of the Code of Virginia (1950), as amended) applies to faculty members in institutions of higher education. Section 2.1-344 (a) presently provides, inter alia, for executive meetings in the following circumstances: "(1) Discussion or consideration of employment, assignment, appointment, promotion, performance, demotion, salaries, disciplining or resignation of public officers, appointees or employees of any public body, and evaluation of performance of departments or schools of State institutions of higher education where such matters regarding such individuals might be affected by such evaluation."

The amendment contained in H.B. 899 adds the following language to the end of the above section: "provided, however, that any teacher shall be permitted to be present at an executive session or closed meeting where discussion or consideration of discipline of the teacher will take place and the student involved in such disciplinary matter is permitted to be present, provided such teacher requests to be present in writing to the presiding officer of the appropriate board." (Emphasis added.) Your question requires a determination of whether the term "teacher" in H.B. 899 includes teachers at the postsecondary level as well as primary and secondary levels. The amendatory language must be interpreted consistently with the policy of the Act. "[The Act] shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government. Any exception or exemption from applicability shall be narrowly construed in order that no thing which should be public may be hidden...." Section 2.1-340.1. The amendment contained in H.B. 899 contains no words of limitation upon the term "teacher." It does not confine the term to teachers in the public schools. Nor does H.B. 899 tie the term "teacher" to any limited definition of the term set forth in other provisions of the Code.1 Thus, within the amendment itself there is no clear expression of a legislative intent to limit the amendment only to teachers in elementary and secondary schools.2 As a general rule, words in a statute should be given their usual, commonly understood meaning. The Covington Virginian v. Woods, 182 Va. 538. 29 S.E.2d 406 (1944). The term "teacher" is defined generally as "one that teaches or instructs esp : one whose occupation is to instruct. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1968) at 2346. The ordinary meaning of "teacher" is not limited to those who instruct at a particular institutional level. Accordingly, I am of the opinion that H.B. 899 applies to faculty who teach at institutions of higher education, and not just teachers at the primary and secondary levels. I note that the impact of the amendment will be limited because it applies only to cases where a teacher is accused of charges brought by or involving a student who is allowed to be present at the closed hearing or executive session.



1. For instance, the Act does not adopt by reference the definition of teacher used in the Virginia Supplemental Retirement Act. See §51-111.10(4) which limits by definition the term "teacher" to distinguish it from "employees of institutions of higher education" who are defined in §51-111.28. Further, it does not limit the use of the term "teacher" only to those who are required to be certified to teach in the public schools under §22.1-299.

2. The General Assembly itself has not confined its use of the term "teacher" only to legislation dealing with elementary and secondary public schools. Legislation concerning the powers of the various Boards of Visitors at State institutions of higher learning refer to "teachers" at these institutions. See, e. 23-1; 23-50.10; 23-91.29; 23-91.40; 23-155.7; 23-164.6,23-165.6; 23-174.5; 23-185.