Whether the fiscal and managerial troubles that have brought the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation into question threatens the school’s ability to remain open varies depending upon whom you ask.
“The threat is real,” said Hanna Leung, an attorney vying for one of four seats on the college’s board of trustees. “Nothing is too big to fail.”
“We’re not going to close down,” said Natalie Berg, a trustee who is up for reelection. “We’re practicing fiscal restraint.”
Half of the trustees on the school’s governing board are up for reelection in November. Ten candidates are vying for four seats on the board; all four incumbents — Berg, Chris Jackson, Steve Ngo and Rodrigo Santos — are running for reelection.
On Friday, eight of the 10 gathered for a debate hosted by New America Media and supported by the San Francisco Foundation.
In July, the regional Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges identified a list of deficiencies that could potentially cost the school its accreditation if not addressed. Since then, the CCSF board of trustees has closed two campuses, proposed staff layoffs and suspended noncredit enrichment classes such as jitterbugging and computer basics.
The four incumbents made a case as to why voters should reelect them despite the college’s accreditation crisis.
Berg, who has served on the board since 1996, highlighted her appointed position on the board of governors, the statewide community college governing board. Berg also personally funded two English-language classes that were on the verge of cancellation because of the lack of funding, she said.
“City College has always been a generous institution to those who work and attend the institution,” she said. “Unfortunately, that got a little out of hand. It’s a complicated problem and we’re paying attention.”
Both Berg and Santos, a structural engineer, said they offered to forgo their $500 monthly stipends in the face of the school’s budget woes.
Newer trustees Jackson and Ngo placed blame on decisions made before they served on the board.
“We gave away money and power a long time ago, and it’s hard to take it back,” said Ngo, an education attorney who has served as a trustee since 2009.
Back then there were administrators with felony records and troubling audit reports, he said, adding that there hasn’t been an opportunity to get at the fiscal heart of the problems at the college.
Santos, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to the board two months ago, said he has only attended five meetings so far but is prepared to tackle the issues the college faces going forward. He plans to use his ties to the private sector to help strengthen the college’s reputation among local industries.
At times, tension and differences among sitting trustees became apparent.
Part of the debate allowed candidates to ask each other a question. Some incumbents challenged each other on past votes pertaining to pay cuts for the highest-paid administrators and whether to collect from students who were allowed to enroll in classes without paying course fees. The college lost $400,000 a year by not forcing students to pay for classes.
“The board needs reformers,” said Rafael Mandelman, a public law and affordable housing attorney vying for one of the seats on the board. “The board could use some consensus builders. I think that was demonstrated here today.”
Amy Bacharach, a policy researcher and adjunct professor, and Leung, a workers’ compensation attorney, are both hoping to secure a spot on the board. Bacharach stressed the need for more analysis, assessment and performance-based outcomes. Leung highlighted her fiscal responsibility, having owned her firm, and emphasized her ability to develop new, creative funding streams.
CCSF student William Walker is a non-voting student trustee on the board but is running for one of the voting seats. He pointed to shared governance as something he would like to improve if elected.
The candidates answered questions about campus diversity, whether the faculty holds too much power, whether part-time faculty should receive full-time health benefits and whether to fund enrichment classes.
The faculty has had too much power and created a culture where they get a say in most policy decisions, Ngo said. That needs to stop, he said.
Faculty would argue that, absent effective leadership from top administrators, they have been forced to step up in policy decision-making, Mandelman said. Regardless, the whole situation is troubling, he said.
One thing all the candidates agreed upon was the need for voters to pass two upcoming ballot initiatives to fund community colleges. One is Proposition 30, a statewide measure that would fund the state’s K-12 schools and community colleges in part by increasing the sales tax by a quarter-cent. The other is San Francisco’s Proposition A, which levies a parcel tax of $79 each year for eight years and which would directly fund CCSF, the state’s largest community college.
Not present at the debate were candidates Nate Cruz and George Vazhappally.
The college must submit a final action plan to the commission by Oct. 15 that describes how it plans to keep its accreditation. It has until March 15 to implement the changes.