SAN FRANCISCO - On November 6th, voters here will cast a ballot for the candidates they believe are best suited to steer the embattled City College of San Francisco (CCSF) out of its current crisis. How they vote will determine nothing less than the future face of public higher education in this city.
The problem is, few know who the candidates even are.
“These races get no attention,” said incumbent Steve Ngo, one of ten candidates vying for four seats up for grabs on the seven-member City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees. “That’s why we’re here.”
Ngo, an education attorney, spoke Friday during a debate held at New America Media before an audience of ethnic and community media journalists. He was among eight candidates - four incumbents and four challengers - who squared off over how to save the school.
Of primary concern were the fiscal and administrative issues that have given rise to a looming threat to revoke the school’s accreditation. Monday marked the deadline for the college to submit a rescue plan to the state’s accreditation commission. It now has until March 15 to implement those changes or face a possible closure.
Serving roughly 100,000 students, CCSF is among the nation’s largest community colleges. In addition to its degree bearing academic programs, aimed primarily at students looking to transfer into four-year institutions, the school also offers hundreds of vocational and enrichment courses for everyone from laid off workers to senior citizens, homeless youth and returning vets.
Unlike other districts in the state, CCSF is also solely responsible for administering the city’s adult education programs.
Most candidates agreed the school’s traditional emphasis on being everything to everyone is partly to blame to for its current troubles. There was less agreement on what to do about it.
“Classes have to be self sufficient,” insisted Rodrigo Santos, a structural engineer appointed in August by Mayor Ed Lee and the newest of the incumbents.
Ngo described the system that’s currently in place as a “zero sum game,” saying he supported the idea of charging for enrichment classes that are now free.
Challenger Hannah Leung, a workers compensation attorney, stressed the need for new revenue streams. She then recalled her own grandmother, who as a newly arrived immigrant “took Bart and hitchhiked” from outside of the city in order to attend ESL classes. Leung said cuts would also have to be made, while keeping “social values in mind.”
It is those same social values that CCSF is now being forced to reexamine. The school recently removed “civic engagement, cultural enrichment and lifelong learning” from its mission statement, at the urging of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
Incumbent Chris Jackson put the question this way. “What kind of college are we gonna have?” Pointing to his record of fighting to keep open campuses serving primarily communities of color, he said, “I’m not going to let them fall.”
Community colleges across the state are reeling from painful budget cuts and CCSF is no exception. In the past three years, the school has lost some $53 million in state funding, forcing it to cut over 700 classes.
A draft of the CCSF rescue plan, released in September, calls for across-the-board salary cuts, class consolidation and the closing of a $400,000 loophole that allowed students to enroll in classes without paying for them.
“We’re going to be fine,” insisted incumbent Natalie Berg. Describing herself as a consensus builder, she touted her “long history” of more than 30 years with the school, in both academic and administrative roles. “I’ve pretty much spent my life there,” she said.
Berg also highlighted her success in pressing Gov. Jerry Brown to include California’s community colleges to the list of recipients of additional funding that could become available if Brown’s tax initiative, Prop. 30, passes in November.
There was unanimous support among all candidates for Proposition A, a local ballot measure that would create a parcel tax to generate $16 million per year for the next 8 years that would directly fund CCSF.
The debate panel included San Francisco Chronicle education reporter Nanette Asimov and EdSource executive director Louis Freedberg, and was moderated by veteran journalist Emil Guillermo. Questions ranged from issues of governance and fiscal accountability to campus diversity and health care for the school’s part-time workers.
Not present at the debate were candidates Nate Cruz and George Vazhappally.
Tensions emerged when candidates were allowed to question each other. Ngo took aim at Berg’s decision to oppose slashing salaries for the highest paid administrators. Berg shot back, saying such decisions could not be made “by fiat.”
Amy Bacharach, a policy researcher and adjunct professor, asked fellow candidate William Walker for his thoughts about not having a vote as a student trustee. Walker responded by noting his work engaging students to ensure their voice is at the table when decisions are made.
Walker also raised the issue of teacher diversity, noting that CCSF recently hired its first African American math professor, who could be let go under looming cuts. Jackson said in response that the school’s faculty was currently 70 percent white, adding he had helped to pass a “diversity resolution” ensuring more hiring of minority teachers.
Questions from the audience included ways to better engage communities in the city.
“San Franciscans know they love City College,” said Rafael Mandelman, an attorney practicing public law and affordable housing rights. Bacharach cited the school’s culinary program and its strong ties to the city’s restaurant industry. “We should look to replicate this across the city.”
Santos suggested fostering closer ties to the emerging tech companies now moving into San Francisco. “We have to make sure we have the funding,” he said. Responding to a question from Mandelman about low morale at the school, he answered, “We have to remind people that we will be around for the long haul.”