Disparate groups are coming together to help rescue the threatened institution. What are they up against?
CAREERS AND ED City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is fighting for its life, and that struggle has turned old enemies into new allies. Suddenly, past differences seem less important than the need to work together, bringing a new sense of unity and purpose to the troubled community college.
In June the school was sanctioned and ordered to "show cause" from the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges, putting it on the brink of losing its accreditation — certification necessary for the college's degrees to be worth anything and for the school to secure federal aid (see "City College fights back," July 17).
Twelve workgroups comprised of faculty, staff, administrators, students, and college board members are working feverishly to prove by October that the school is making major progress. Otherwise, it could face dire consequences.
While few people with any education or political background believe the school will actually close, there are serious consequences if its accreditation is revoked. A special trustee assigned by the state chancellor's office could assume the powers of the college's board or the school could be merged with another community college district.
The only college in California to ever suffer both of those fates was Compton Community College in 2006. Though the two colleges serve wildly different communities, many speak of their fates in the same breath. Its shadow hangs over City College like a ghost of what is to come.
The newfound sense of common purpose was displayed on Aug. 1 in CCSF conference rooms, where once-battling special interest groups and employees gathered to tackle problems that have plagued the school for years.
The feuds aren't just of interest to political geeks and college insiders. Infighting and a dysfunctional governance structure had stalled the school from tackling urgent issues, according to the accrediting commission.
"During interviews, criticism regarding the efficiency of the institutional governance process was revealed. The criticism centered on the length of time to reach a recommendation. It was also noted that there may be misunderstanding regarding the role of a recommending body versus a decision-making body," according to the commission's report.
That snippet of the 66-page critical report represents years of strife at the school, not only among the school's elected trustees but also between the board and other college groups on issues ranging from placement testing to school site closures.
The 12 newly formed workgroups — constituted by the Chancellor's Office and comprised mostly of faculty, administrators, and trustees — met to discuss issues and make recommendations to the system's decision-making authorities: the Chancellor's Office and Board of Trustees. One of the workgroups is in charge of evaluating that very decision-making system, with 14 people from different college constituencies hashing out a new style of democracy for the school.
At their first meeting, the members brought in stacks of papers to hand out — research on best practices and policies in college governments around the state and the nation. This particular workgroup discussed how an ideal student government should run, and how to enact those changes at City College.
The workgroups are brainstorming sessions, and each one has a different task ahead of it, including how to measure student learning, leveraging technology to streamline the school, facilities planning, and fiscal planning. Each workgroup acts independently, although some themes and members overlap.
The Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet and report on the progress of the workgroups on August 14 — the day before fall semester classes begin.
A final, preliminary report based on the findings of the dozen workgroups is expected to be completed before the accrediting commission's October 15 deadline. With everything on the table, from staff layoffs to campus closures, CCSF is an anxious institution facing an uncertain future.
In Compton, faculty and staff lived in constant fear of losing their jobs between 2002 and 2006, while the school was at risk of losing accreditation. Its path offers some lessons for CCSF.
"From three or four years prior to the accreditation being revoked, every March everybody got a pink slip and then you found out, you know, whether or not you actually had a job to come back to the next year," Ann Garten, the community relations director of El Camino Community College District, told the Guardian in a phone interview.
El Camino swooped in to save Compton from total closure when its accreditation was revoked in 2006. The fate of employees at City College is a mystery for now, but based on Compton's experience, part-time faculty are most at risk.
During spring semester, City College had nearly 1,700 instructors, approximately half of which were part-timers, according to college payroll documents. The school's faculty are represented by the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121.
Classified workers — those who perform services such as administrative support, technology services, and grounds maintenance — could also be at risk. Their numbers exceeded 800 during the last fiscal year, according to the school's assistant director of research, Steve Spurling.
They are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, a large and active union that also represents most city workers. In recent years, both unions have already taken pay cuts and freezes on raises and accepted furlough days to help plug the college's fiscal holes.
If a special trustee were to take over, these workers would become even more vulnerable. But even without a special trustee, will there be layoffs?
Though there is no definitive answer yet, "everything needs to be on the table," Trustee Steve Ngo told us. Yet most indications are that part-timers are at the most risk.
"I'm not convinced [full time faculty] pay cuts are what is called for. Our part time is the highest paid in the country," CCSF Chancellor Pamila Fisher told the Associated Student Presidents, made up of elected leaders from CCSF's eight main campuses. "We pay them health care. That's unheard of" and could be re-evaluated, she said.
Yet it's also possible that more creative and aggressive fundraising could save the part-timers and other college functions. Alisa Messer, president of AFT local 2121, said statewide categorical funds exist expressly to help fund part time faculty health care costs, she said, although not all colleges follow through.
"AFT 2121 has been a leader in this state, and in fact in the nation, on increasing parity for part-time/contingent faculty," Messer said. "We will not allow this crisis to be an excuse to roll back significant progress that has been made on the rights of our most vulnerable faculty."
The commission's June report dinged the school for spending higher than average levels on salaries and benefits, 92 percent of their funds to be exact, while other community colleges in the Bay Area have figures in the low to mid 80s.
Yet many of CCSF's defenders say that comparison isn't fair or accurate, noting San Francisco's higher cost of living and the fact that the district provides health coverage to part-time faculty, which most other community colleges in the state do not provide.
As the college unites, many conflicts that remain boil down to the question of open access. CCSF currently operates with what it sees as a true community college ethos, where the varied needs of a diverse student population are balanced.
Recent high school graduates preparing for transfer mingle with adult students continuing their education, while English as Second Language (ESL) learners work towards proficiency and others seek new technical skills or transition to a new career.
Many students also take so-called "personal enrichment" courses — one time classes in the arts or languages, for example — that state government has de-prioritized as the budget hole has gotten deeper.
"I think we have to spend money better," Ngo said, concerning "non-credit" courses, which are primarily classes for adult learners. He pointed to the fact that ESL classes are a full semester long, despite a unique "hop in, hop out" structure to the lessons, which gives students flexibility in their attendance over the course of the semester.
Reducing the number of weeks in a semester that those classes meet could be one possible strategy for saving money, he said. He emphasized that the college needs to work with hard data, and that calculations from what could be saved by such moves aren't finished.
The number of campuses within the district is also being re-evaluated. "Yes, one of things we're looking at is whether we should have nine sites. Centers may be combined. We don't know if that will pay out yet," Chancellor Fisher told the student presidents, referring to complex funding formulas that could actually prevent CCSF from saving money by closing campuses.
Fisher said officials are researching the possibility of combining campuses in close proximity, which drew a mixed reaction from the presidents. Bouchra Simmons, the Downtown Campus student president, said that combining the Civic Center and Downtown campuses would be disastrous.
"[Downtown Campus] is already pushed to capacity in terms of class size," Simmons said. And the reverse, moving Downtown Campus students into Civic Center, would make it difficult for her to drop her daughter off at child care and still be able to make it to school on time.
Emanuel Andreas, Southeast Campus president, disagreed when it came to his constituents. "We understand what is happening, and everything needs to be on the table," he said.
The threat of campus closures and a reduction in non-credit classes are all part of the attack on open access, as some students have said. To combat that, they've formed a new student group aimed at educating the city about what they stand to lose.
Project Unity is comprised of Occupy CCSF students, former student trustee Jeffrey Fang, student body President Shanell Williams, and other students, led by the newly elected student Trustee William Walker. They've rallied for their school at City Hall, where Supervisors Eric Mar and John Avalos have sponsored a resolution to support City College.
Project Unity met at the Mission Campus shortly after supporting the resolution, and started to plan a grassroots campaign to educate the city and its residents about open access.
Bob Gorringe, a member of Occupy San Francisco, was on hand to help the fledgling group strategize. "[Trustee] Anita Grier came out to the Occupy action council, and she was very open," Gorringe told the group on July 31, referring to the longtime board member who is not exactly known for her radical tendencies.
Students taking such a vested interest in their college should come as no surprise, considering what happened to Compton before it folded into El Camino.
Although Compton never actually closed, it hemorrhaged students as public fears of the college closing grew larger, and the student body dropped to around 2,000 when El Camino took over, Garten told the Guardian.
Some students went elsewhere, but many appear to have just abandoned the education system.
"We looked at two or three colleges around Compton and none of us had a significant increase in students from the Compton district" enrolling, Garten said.
In other words, it looked like many disillusioned students had simply dropped out, something that nobody wants to see in San Francisco.
Just over two months remain for CCSF and its supporters to hash out a preliminary plan. Aiding them is a team of experts that will create a detailed report on everything related to the college's financial woes — possibly the most critical problem area.
The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, explained their process to the college on August 3.
Without revealing any specific details, Michelle Plumbtree, the chief management analyst of FCMAT, warned an audience of a couple dozen interested people that its report would seem negative, but only because that's exactly what the report is supposed to be: a critical review of problem areas.
"You guys are doing incredible things...But that's not what we talk about [in our reports]," Plumbtree said.
Mike Hill, another FCMAT team member, succinctly layed out the biggest obstacles to City College's fiscal future. "This is not a one year problem...We're looking at three years. What makes that complicated is the governor's tax, and the parcel tax," Hill said, referring to Prop. 30 and the San Francisco ballot measure City College sponsored. "There are four scenarios... It's not predictable." Prop. 30, the tax measure placed on the ballot by Governor Jerry Brown, wouldn't raise new revenue for community colleges. If it passes, they simply break even, staving off more drastic cuts. But the parcel tax offers more hope for CCSF, if city voters approve it. It would free up $14 million in revenue for this fiscal year, restoring some of what was lost and prevent the deep cuts and scaled back mission that the school's support most fear.