You can’t miss it. It’s Proposition A.
The first item on the March 3 ballot that you may already have returned is an $845 million facilities bond to maintain and enhance the decrepit and beleaguered City College.
Eight hundred and forty-five million dollars. And no pennies.
Barring unforeseen lunacy, Proposition A will pass. The only group on record opposing it is the San Francisco Republican Party. And Prop. A’s backers are actually thrilled about that, because having the Republicans opposing you in this town is better than having nobody opposing you. It’s a net benefit.
If the Republicans really wanted to tank this measure, they’d support it.
Prop. A, to be fair, has garnered a diverse array of backers. But, scratch the surface and you’ll find that many people are hardly enthused. A scant three years after emerging from an existential crisis at the hands of an Inspector Javert-like accreditation committee, City College is now facing another existential crisis of its own making. The institution is operating at a severe structural deficit and burning through its reserves. Classes are being canceled and the 10-campus college is feeling increasingly stretched.
And now City College is asking for $845 million to deal with another pressing matter: its buildings are falling apart. Deferred maintenance alone on City College’s myriad campuses would top $450 million.
City College has always had that Wile E. Coyote feel. Every scheme seems to result in the college hitting a wall or resting at the bottom of a cliff — and, yet, there’s always a next one.
The college will all but certainly get its $845 million. But its actions leading up to the March 3 election remind everyone why they’re uneasy giving City College money.
It doesn’t hurt that Prop. A only requires 55 percent of the vote — and not 66.7 percent — as it was issued by a school district. And that may loom large, because City College just can’t get out of its own way.
To wit, earlier this month, Supervisor Shamann Walton helmed a hearing asking for data regarding the students affected by City College’s abrupt curtailing of more than 300 classes. But City College didn’t provide the data, despite multiple opportunities to do so and plenty of lead time. Instead, a vice chancellor recited from the college’s mission statement — a move akin to a filibustering politician reading from the phone book. “It was,” recalls Walton, “a horrible hearing.”
So, this was not appreciated. But it gets weirder.
Walton et al. passed a measure to front the college $2.4 million to stave off those class cuts. Chancellor Mark Rocha, in a jarring move, stated he didn’t want it — go ahead and cut the classes; we’re good. And, in the end, Mayor London Breed vetoed the bailout anyway.
This bizarre melodrama over $2.4 million, spurring elderly people and students of color to storm City Hall — and the spectacle of a college’s chancellor refusing help and giving the green light to cut classes — is not the kind of thing you’d want in the headlines on the eve of asking voters to pony up $845 million.
But there they are. And, again, City College’s measure will pass — in spite of itself.
Walton, for one, feels burned. For the college to fail to provide data, despite being given weeks to come up with it, came off as high-handed and condescending: “That demonstrated they are not willing to work with us.” So did turning down that money. “I am skeptical about how we’re going to work with City College moving forward,” Walton continued.
But it goes deeper than that. Walton accuses City College leadership of pumping him to support this bond at the same time they were planning to axe classes in his district — and keeping that from him and nearly everyone else. “That’s very insulting,” he says. “They talked to me about supporting this bond, but not about cutting classes. It was deceptive. It was not transparent. I don’t really know how to trust City College’s intentions.”
This is not the way City College administrators would behave if they desperately needed every last bit of support or were at all worried about the bond’s viability. Apparently they’re not.
Walton is not listed among the bond’s supporters. The best way to put it is he’s not not supporting it. “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” he admits. City College needs the bond. San Francisco needs City College. Bottom line, that’s it. There’s no alternative.
“On the ballot it’s going to be successful,” Walton says. “Naturally I want my community and my district to benefit.”
But, when asked if this bond will deliver that promise, Walton doesn’t mince words. “I do not trust the leadership of this college and I am skeptical about City College’s ability to deliver what they say.
“I am not sure City College can do anything.”
But, on a brighter note, things could be worse. Last year, City College — which, again, has $450 million in deferred maintenance — was pondering budgeting $250 million of an $800 million bond for a brand new performing arts center. There was also talk of erecting a $174 million parking lot.
The parking lot has been nixed altogether and the new plan is to spend a mere $102 million on a performing arts center that’ll house the college’s priceless Diego Rivera mural. Well, that’d be less; Supervisor Aaron Peskin called the $250 million plan “obscene,” but he’s a listed bond supporter now.
Let’s be clear: $102 million is still a lot of money.
The new theater is scheduled to break ground this year, and be completed by 2022. Those are tight turnarounds and, in fact, most every project listed on the “primary project list and conceptual budget” is assigned an aggressive completion date.
Construction costs are rising to infinity and beyond, so it makes sense to get things done as quickly as possible. But the key word here is “possible:” Unlike a city bond, which could be scoured by the controller and/or budget and legislative analyst beforehand to see if costs and timelines are realistic, this City College bond was only overseen by an outside consultant.
So, that’s suboptimal. As for the future theater, it would behoove City College to build it quickly: The Diego Rivera mural will be on loan to the Museum of Modern Art for the next two years and, when they give it back, it can’t just be stored in the basement like an old football.
You can, in fact, go up and down the project list and tally up the misgivings. For one thing, adding infrastructure to the campus will all but certainly increase its operating costs — and City College is already running at an operating deficit.
But the misgivings also mount when contemplating allowing the college’s decrepit, archaic, unsafe buildings to continue to decay. For once, City College’s misfortune is a point in its favor; it’s very hard to justify not funding a campus rebuild.
“Many of these facilities haven’t been renovated for decades,” says City College Board of Trustees president Shanell Williams. “It’s just time.”
Most San Franciscans figure to agree. Internal polling puts Prop. A at more than 70 percent. As Gavin Newsom was wont to say: It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not.
Unless, perhaps, the Republican Party has a change of heart.
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