City College Supporters Meet to Prevent Closure

People who attended Monday's meeting about City College's accreditation wrote down what the college means to them. Claire Ervin Lee is still learning at 62.

En Español.

“City College of San Francisco isn’t going anywhere,” was the response last night as almost 200 students, faculty and supporters gathered to discuss a recent accreditation report that said the college must shape up or face closure in March 2013.

A week ago, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges said that City College has eight months to reform its poor leadership and finances and show that it’s worth keeping open.

Since then, many students have questioned whether the school is still accredited and whether they should stay in school for the fall term, said interim Chancellor Pamela Fisher. Without accreditation, students’ degrees would be invalid and the school would not receive public funding.

The answer, Fisher said, is yes, adding that closure “is a very slim reality.”

“We are about correcting what’s wrong,” said Angela Thomas of SEIU Local 1021, which represents City College employees who do not need certification to work.

“The threat is real but we’re going to deal with it,” added Thomas, who spoke on behalf of the union, which organized the meeting along with another union that represents college professors.

Among the problems cited by the accrediting commission were an increase in short-term borrowing from reserves to meet needs, too few administrators for a school of its size (only 39 administrators serve 90,000 students at nine official campuses), a poor program evaluation process and a “long-standing pattern of late financial audits and deficit spending, which harm the financial integrity of the institution.”

The report also found that the roles and authority for decision-making within the college were confusing, hindering communication and results.

The commission listed 14 areas in which the school needs to improve, including assessing institutional effectiveness, tracking student learning outcomes and coming up with a better technology plan.

Many in the audience argued that the report was an attack on public education. Others, including Supervisor Eric Mar, said that one of the main problems is cuts to education from the state.

The school has already made drastic changes to stay afloat, increasing class sizes, eliminating classes altogether, raising tuition and denying raises to teachers for several years.

According to the report, the college spent more than 92 percent of its allotted budget on salaries and benefits, and the remaining 8 percent “simply is not adequate for all other operations and maintenance, hence the reliance on grants, bonds, and other one-time funding.” City College had an operating budget of $190 million last year.

“I think accreditation is important,” said Derelyn Tom, a teacher at Mission High School. “But the report is basing its findings on budgets and not the services the school provides.” City College offers tremendous value to Mission High students who would otherwise end up in low-paying jobs, the military or prison, Tom said.

Others feared that the accreditation commission is targeting schools that serve low-income students, and argued that the fact that City College spends more of its budget on teachers and staff than administration is not a bad thing.

Chancellor Fisher said that lack of funding — the college lost $17 million in state funding last year — is not the issue.

“We got the same cuts as everyone else,” Fisher said. “Only two out of the 14 recommendations were about finances, and the rest were about the school — planning, student progress. We’re not doing a good job, but I’m confident we can fix it.”

The school is putting together a response team to tackle every one of the recommendations, Fisher added.

Many talked about other recourses: a parcel tax will be voted on in the November election, and the revenue would go to City College to offset many of its costs.

“We don’t mind financial support, but that will solve our fiscal problem, not the accreditation of our college,” said Fisher.

City College’s problems aren’t new; the accrediting agency had warned the school about some of the same issues in 2006.

“We need to fix some things that were broken for a long time, and we just galloped along,” said the SEIU’s Thomas. “But now the honeymoon is done, and we can’t ignore it. We have to do something.”

Those willing to help included many students and professors in the audience, like Nancy Mackowsky, who teaches English as a second language at Mission campus.

“A lot of programs are beneficial for ESL and GED students who are not served in traditional colleges,” said Mackowsky, who was at the meeting to learn about next steps. “Computer classes — these are critical to our community.”

Many at the meeting were fearful of the impact of more cuts and, in the worst-case scenario, closure.

“It’s our future — it’s an open door because there is hope that we can learn, do whatever we want,” said Xiomara, an undocumented student from El Salvador who hopes to become a math teacher one day. “Before City College, we thought we couldn’t do it,” added Xiomara, who was there with her husband, also a City College student, and their two sons.

Jesus, the vice president of the student association at Mission campus, worried that English-language-learner classes would be cut entirely. An undocumented student who needs one more year of classes to qualify as an AB540 student and receive in-state tuition, Jesus would like to transfer to UC Berkeley and become an engineer or graphic designer.

“It can take up to three years to get to an advanced level in ESL,” he said in Spanish, referring to the importance of the program’s longevity.

Many at the Mission campus worry about how the accreditation process will affect the local community, he said.

City College has until October 15 to demonstrate accountability and fiscal responsibility through an action plan that includes raising financial reserves, increasing its administrative personnel, matching expenditures with revenue, addressing funding for retiree health benefits and reducing the percentage of its budget that goes toward salaries and benefits.

“We need to change how we do business, meet the standards of all colleges and put this behind us,” said Chancellor Fisher.

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