Sunrise for City College?


By Joel P. Engardio

The debacle known as City College of San Francisco appears to have entered its darkest-before-dawn phase.

How dark did it get? Last summer, the college was told it would lose its accreditation and public funding if it didn’t comply with the standards every other community college in California has to follow.

City College was operating in its own, uniquely San Francisco way. There was “shared governance” where students and faculty had a say in decisions through a spaghetti bowl of committees, sub-committees and task forces. Gridlock ensued and the cacophony of self-interests made it impossible for the college to act in the interest of the public good.

There were deals that gave lifetime health benefits for employees who worked just five years. Tens of millions were spent constructing multiple neighborhood campuses in a city that only spans seven miles. Students who didn’t pay registration fees could still attend class, costing the school $400,000 a year.

Some of the elected trustees who govern the college often failed to show up for their duties and still got paid. One trustee racked up $11,000 in fines for not filing the required forms in two election cycles, defending his lapse by saying “the paperwork became too much.”

These were the trustees voters put in charge of a $300 million budget. We also gave them a $130 million parcel tax last year that was supposed to “Save City College.”

But things got even darker. After a stern warning and a deadline to meet statewide standards, the accrediting commission ruled the college met just four of 21 eligibility requirements. Without accreditation, credits can’t transfer and students can’t get financial aid.

So where’s the dawn? No more trustees. They were stripped of their authority and Robert Agrella — a czar-like special trustee — was named with “extraordinary powers” to unilaterally do what it takes to save the college.

“Finally, we have someone with a free hand who can surgically and efficiently get the job done without spending endless hours pontificating with every stakeholder,” said Rodrigo Santos, a former trustee who was appointed by the mayor to an open seat last year before losing his election bid. Santos is a fiscal conservative who ran on pragmatic reform and was criticized by the left for being too moderate.

If Agrella can make City College compliant by next summer, it won’t close. Yet forces continue to blame the commission and its standards rather than accept that City College was mismanaged. This only hurts the college’s chances for survival.

“The time for speech-making and marching is over,” Santos said. “Demonizing the accreditation commission is a waste of energy. Students aren’t served by the political aspirations of trustees. Students are served by an accredited college.”

Encouraging students to enroll this fall will allow the college to remain stable while the necessary fixes are made before next summer’s final deadline. Students need to feel confident that City College has a future and it will, if we let Agrella do his job.

There is no wiggle room. Santos said he was surprised when the accreditation commission gave the college a failing grade despite all the effort that went into correcting problems since last summer. No one, including Santos, clarified whether 80 percent progress was enough to pass or if scoring an absolute 100 was needed.

“I regret I never asked that question,” Santos said. “Thinking you’re making progress is not the same as completing the task. We never quite understood that either you meet the requirements or you don’t. Now we know.”

Also published in the San Francisco Examiner August 4, 2013

EducationJoel Engardio