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This is the first in an occasional series exploring some of Virginia’s more obscure state boards and commissions.

Name: Board for Barbers and Cosmetology.

Purpose: To regulate the practice of cosmetology and related professions in the state of Virginia.

Meeting location: An office park in Henrico County.

Stephen Kirschner has some bad news for the Board for Barbers and Cosmetology: The pass rate for people taking the state’s barbering theory test is down to 39 percent – noticeably lower than in years past and “substantially lower than other states.”

Kirchner, a state regulatory administrator, offers a few theories at last week’s meeting. One of them: would-be barbers may be getting stumped by questions about wigs.

It’s not part of the state’s curriculum, he said, but the board voted in 2016 to start using a generic test used by other states, which include the question.

“It could play a role,” he said. “But I understand it’s only a few questions so it wouldn’t explain the difference.”

Another possibility, barbering schools in Virginia aren’t doing as good a job preparing students.

He suggests the board’s 10 members keep an eye on the issue.

The board meets every two months. The bulk of their work concerns issuing and revoking licenses to work as barbers, cosmetologists, tattoo artists and other professions.

It might sound like a weird thing for the state to have its hands in, but Board Chair Lonnie Quesenberry, a retired cosmetology teacher from Tazewell County, says the complexity of the chemicals and processes the work involves makes accountability and rules critical.

In addition to requiring extensive training and testing to enter the professions, the regulations address safety and sanitation, requiring things like that little strip of paper that goes between a patron’s neck and the salon cape.

At this particular meeting, the half-full room smells good in a way public meetings usually do not – basically like hair product, but not at all overpowering.

The board signs off on a couple dozen new licenses, almost entirely going to current or former prison inmates. Quesenberry says felons are the only ones the board actually has to vote on — the rest are processed administratively — and many prisons offer training programs so inmates can get licensed while they serve their sentences.

The board votes to revoke another couple dozen licenses. Quesenberry says almost all were obtained fraudulently – cases of someone paying someone else to take the state exam for them.

But the most discussion – it literally prompted gasps from the audience – came when Kirschner updated the board on new legislation that went into effect in July.

The biggie: A bill that passed the General Assembly earlier this year deregulating blow-dry bars – a relatively new service where one can get hair washed, styled and dried before a big event so it looks great. No cutting or trimming is involved.

Formerly, the salon employees doing the work had to be fully licensed cosmetologists. But no more.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” one attendee mutters.

Jay Deboer, the director of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, tells the board that the Koch Brothers and their push for deregulation in statehouses around the country is at least partially to blame.  He says a group they fund advocated for the legislation during session this year and notes that other legislation proposed would have eliminated the board, its regulations and its licenses entirely.

“I don’t need to tell you that there’s a deregulatory fervor sweeping the General Assembly,” he says. “They say our rules and regulations are barriers to the profession, and there’s truth to that: they are barriers to enforce safety and professionalism.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned, a Lexington native, has a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He also has the awards to show for it, including taking a pair of first-place honors at the Virginia Press Association awards earlier this year for investigative reporting and feature writing. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. Contact him at [email protected]