Candidates debate City College’s past and future
Under the pressure of vying for votes amid the City College of San Francisco’s looming accreditation crisis, eight of the 10 candidates contending for four seats on the CCSF Board of Trustees faced a room full of stakeholders Oct. 8 at a debate hosted by New America Media.
While most of the candidates argued against the swelling rumors of a possible closure of the 77-year-old institution, it became evident during Friday’s debate that the college as it currently exists is very much in jeopardy.
“We have two fundamental problems,” said incumbent Trustee Steve Ngo, who has been a member of the board since 2009 and is running for re-election. “We don’t spend our money correctly, and we don’t make decisions the right way—the two reinforce each other.”
During the debate, Ngo often alluded to the fact that corrupt administrators and structural problems spanning nearly two decades plagued the college long before he was elected to the board.
“There has been a problem with absenteeism on the board long before it was literal—the board, before I got there, gave away money and power,” said Ngo, speaking of a “philosophical difference between certain factions” on the board.
During a period in the debate in which candidates were able to pose questions to each other, Ngo challenged Trustee Natalie Berg on her stance of rescinding an amendment he proposed in 2009, requiring CCSF’s highest paid administrators to take a six percent pay cut. The money, he said would have gone towards the budget deficit.
Berg, on the other hand, asked why Trustee Chris Jackson refused to collect nearly $400,000 worth of back debt from students who have yet to pay their tuition. The money, she says, could be used to save many classes at CCSF.
“It’s a simple policy shift,” said Jackson, reasoning that it would cost a lot more to hire a debt agency than to ensure students pay tuition before registering for classes in the future. “Going after students who haven’t paid in the past is not fiscally sound.”
Later in the debate, Berg, who has served on the board since 1996, and Rodrigo Santos, a structural engineer—both running for re-election—offered their monthly $500 stipends to put towards the school.
In times of a crisis
What exactly brought California’s largest public institution for higher education to the brink of bankruptcy, was a sticky issue during the debate.
CCSF has come under severe scrutiny in recent months after an audit by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which revealed operational and financial violations at the school. The Commission released a list of 14 suggested improvements that the school must meet by March 15, 2013 in order to keep its accreditation and its funding.
The college submitted an official plan of action on Oct. 15 outlining changes being made at the school.
“If we lose our license we cannot get financial aid for our students,” explained Ngo.
“Nothing is too big to fail,” added Hanna Leung, an attorney who is hoping to be elected to the board.
Since the report was issued, the school has experienced layoffs, drastic cuts to classes, furloughs and even the closure of two of its nine campuses.
“City College has lost over $53 million over three years—that’s nearly a quarter of our budget,” said Jackson.
With a current budget of $186 million, CCSF is receiving almost $8 million less than it did during the previous school year.
“Part of it is a funding crisis—we have experienced an entire disinvestment in education as a whole,” Jackson said.
While a lack of state funding may be part of the problem, financial cutbacks are not unique to CCSF.
“Every college has experienced budget cuts,” said Nanette Asminov, education reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, who served as a questioner during the debate and pointed to reports by fiscal reviewers that CCSF spends more on labor than other colleges do when it can’t afford it.
According to the report released by the Accrediting Commission, CCSF spends 92 percent of its budget on salaries. In the past, part-time teachers have received full-time benefits.
“I believe that faculty should have access to healthcare,” said Jackson. “We have to tighten our fiscal belts—I would not want to sacrifice disability healthcare.”
“I do not know of any institution where a part-time person receives those kinds of benefits,” said new candidate Amy Bacharach, a public policy researcher who is also hoping to join the board.
“I do think that it’s been identified through thoughtful analysis that that’s an area of financial commitment where we’ve over committed ourselves a little bit,” Bacharach added.
While some of the incumbent candidates reluctantly admitted fault, others blamed past decisions by absent administrators, the “bottom-up” shared governance structure at the college and the recent spell of negative press.
“All we hear about City College is negative,” said Berg. “We continue to support the 90,000 students that we have. We have the number one football team in the United States of America—it is difficult for us going through these times and looking only at the negative things.”
“We are about to become insolvent,” said Ngo. “Of course we need to talk about the good things that are happening [at City College]—but let’s not sugarcoat it.”
The college will stay open, but it will have to change
The challenging candidates attempted to find fresh solutions to issues that have manifested themselves in the system for decades. All candidates agreed that changes need to happen, most likely in the form of additional cuts to classes.
“I would advocate for more discretion in how we charge,” said Bacharach. “Cuts are going to have to be made in a very thoughtful way based on data and analysis.”
Most candidates agreed that one way to ensure fiscal responsibility is by restructuring the college’s curriculum, and the possibility of charging for non-credit “lifelong learning” classes as well as transitioning the school into a junior college model rather than the expansive community college of the past were discussed as serious options.
“It’s a zero-sum game. If you are going to choose to keep lifelong learning classes, it means that you are sacrificing somewhere else,” said Ngo, who believes that these types of classes should be eliminated entirely. “The choice is not between a junior college or community college; we have to focus our money where the demand is.”
“CCSF is in a triage situation and hard decisions need to be made,” added candidate Rafael Mandelman, a lawyer for local governments and housing developers. “This means that you save the people that need classes for survival, and [those classes] are probably related to getting into four-year institutions, getting a job, or even learning a second language.”
For all of the candidates, creating revenue is a top priority in securing the school’s future. As for the present, they are hoping that Proposition A currently on the November ballot, will pass.
“We must raise revenues,” said Leung. “Proposition A is very important, but we must understand that public education is under attack.”
The measure, if approved, would increase direct funding for the school by levying a $79-a-year parcel tax for eight years.
In the meantime, candidates are also hoping to reach out to the students for support, stressing the importance of filling out the classrooms despite the college’s uncertain future.
“The college won’t close—the question is ‘Who gets to make the decisions at City College?’” said William Walker, the non-voting student trustee who says that one of his main goals is to get students registered to vote. “I want everyone in the city to know what we are trying to do to save our college.”
Illustrations: Mike Reger & Río Roth-Barreiro