City College of San Francisco Fights for Its Life

For the last year, faculty at City College of San Francisco have been under siege, not just from a newly-hostile administration, but from an accreditation commission that has threatened the district's very existence.  To protect their institution, instructors, supported students and community leaders, have given up wages, campaigned for ballot measures to secure new funding, and supported changes to meet more stringent fiscal requirements while maintaining their vision of community-centered education.

Unfortunately, they have not been met halfway.  Instead, AFT Local 2121 has been forced to fight at a time when cooperation is needed to save the school.

Local union President Alisa Messer:

Our hope was that the college would look at a long-term plan that would stabilize it. What we have, however, is an administration that isn't interested in talking with us.

In the spring of 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges sent a team to San Francisco, as part of its normal 6-year accreditation cycle.  The district, which had been warned earlier about deficiencies, knew there would be problems.  But SFCC, with 85,000 students and 1650 faculty (1100 of whom belong to the union), had never been sanctioned.  It is the largest public school system in California, with an annual operating budget of $200 million.  But under the impact of cuts in state funding, last year it had a deficit of $6 million.

In July, commissioners released a set of findings that found the district deficient in 14 areas, and put it on “Show Cause” status, the most serious sanction short of shutting down the college entirely.  The commission gave the college credit for a very diverse faculty and high-quality libraries and counseling.  Commissioners said, however, the college's governance, planning and leadership were inefficient, and that it had not documented adequately a set of assessments called “Student Learning Outcomes.”

Finally, the commissioners said the district fiscal planning was poor.  Over the past three years of the state's fiscal crisis San Francisco has endured a $53 million loss in revenue.  Nevertheless, teachers and previous chancellors worked to maintain an adequate and accessible class level.  Layoffs were avoided temporary cuts and concessions.  But commissioners found there had not been enough cuts or cancelled classes, that too much (92%) of the budget was spent on personnel, and that too few administrators were on staff.

Faculty reacted with shock, and community leaders questioned the need for putting the college itself in danger.  California's community college system Chancellor Jack Scott said it would be a “disaster” but urged trustees to implement the commission's recommendations, including cuts to programs and even closing campuses.  Trustee Chris Jackson asked, “Where will the students go?”

Just prior to the release of the commissioner's report, the union and the district agreed to more emergency measures to meet the fiscal crisis caused the loss of state funding.  Local 2121 agreed to a 2.85% wage cut for the 2012-2013 school year.  Then faculty and students hit the road to campaign for state Proposition 30, which would prevent further funding cuts, and a citywide Proposition A, intended to plug the hole in the district budget.

The political leaders who place the measure on the ballot, including district trustee Anne Grier, said in their ballot argument that funds from Proposition A would be used to:

maintain core academic courses, including English, math, and science; provide workforce training, including nursing, engineering, business, and technology; provide an education that prepares students for four-year universities;  keep City College libraries and student support services open; keep technology and instructional support up to date, and offset State budget cuts.

Proposition A's opponent, the Libertarian Party, tried to use some of the accreditation commission's arguments to discredit it, including the charge that 92% of the budget was used for salaries, and that department heads had too much power.

The district produced budget projections, given to the union and public, that sought to show the possible results of the passage of the propositions, as well as their defeat.  In the worst case, if both 30 and A failed, the district projected a shortfall of $24.5 million.  Without just Prop. A the hole would the $10 million.  But if both passed, it said, there would be a small surplus of $726,658..

In late October the state community college chancellor nominated, and the SFCC board approved, the appointment of a “special trustee.”  They chose Bob Agrella, past president of Santa Rosa City College.  The board maintained its ability to meet and make decisions, but Agrella  was given the power to veto decisions he feels jeopardize the school's response to the ACCJC.  On November 1 the board hired a new interim chancellor, Thelma Scott-Skillman, retired president of Folsom Lake College near Sacramento.

Even before voting started, district administrators began overturning the system of shared governance at the college.  At the meeting where Agrella was hired, it voted to dismantle the structure that gave departments their autonomy and chairs a voice in faculty scheduling, giving their functions to administrators.  It closed Bernal Heights state preschool, a center for studying child development and assisting parents, to save $84,000.  All these changes were made unilaterally, with no consultation or negotiation with faculty and the union.

Despite the discord, in November voters passed Prop. 30, and Prop. A won with 78% of the vote.  The election did not lead to a new era of cooperation, however.

In December, district negotiators announced that the administration would impose a 4.4% “annualized” wage cut on faculty, retroactive to July, when the 2.85% cut took effect.  Together they would effectively cut salaries 8.8% through next July.  The district refused to bargain, saying the contract gave it the right to take the action.  At first Scott-Skillman attributed the need to declining enrollment, a predictable product of both the cuts and questions over accreditation.  When union negotiators persisted in demanding explanations, a new budget projection was produced.  On the line where the predicted income from Proposition A had been listed previously there was nothing.

After further prodding, the district announced that all Proposition A money would be used to increase the district's reserves, and better fund pension liabilities.  Administration claimed that this was a mandate from ACCJC, and that what voters thought they were voting for was irrelevant.

The San Francisco Labor Council, one of the authors of the ballot argument supporting Measure A, warned, 

San Francisco's labor leaders and their unions — and many rank and file members — helped organize, finance, and lead the way to secure significant new revenue sources for the college…despite these significant additional local and statewide resources generated for CCSF, the District is failing to engage in constructive contract negotiations and instead proposing further concessions.

The union filed a grievance, saying the district had no right under the contract to unilaterally cut salaries, and an unfair labor practice charge accusing the district of imposing the cuts without reaching impasse in bargaining.  Then, to add fuel to the fire, Agrella met with the community college board of governors in January, and told them that these objections were keeping the college from meeting the ACCJC's list of recommendations March 15.  Agrella further blamed department chairs for protesting the change in governance, and everyone in general for trying to protect the system's nine campuses from closure.

Student trustee William Walker cautions that

The district has to have the funds necessary to operate, and if we lose our accreditation what good is the Prop A money? … The college should bring all the stakeholders together, and be as transparent as possible.  Some of he changes being proposed will change the spirit of the college and affect students.  Eliminating department chairs means that students won't get guidance from people doing the teaching.  Other changes could shrink the college and end service to communities.  But I want students to know that the college is open and accredited, that their units will transfer to other institutions, and that we're doing everything we can to comply.

Shanell Williams, urban studies major and president of the Associated Students at SFCC, was an intern who worked on the Prop. A campaign. 

Many people asked us how we could be sure the college would use the money for keeping classes and accessibility, and now the administration is doing what people feared. Students are scared about the future of the college, and need to have confidence that the adaministration will do what it takes to keep the college open, without squeezing out the most at-risk students or forcing extreme cuts on the faculty.

Williams also notes that next year students will be affected the Student Success Act: 

Every student will have to have an education plan, there will be repeat limits, and a 90-credit cap on the Board of Governors fee waiver.  Now is the time when they need more student services and support from the administration, but they're cutting part time counselors and taking other actions that will be even greater barriers.

On March 15, the district has to report to the ACCJC on the steps it has taken to meet the commission's recommendations.  The use of those recommendations district administrators as a justification for extreme salary cuts gave pause to community college union leaders across the state.  In a letter to the district, 16 CFT community college local officers warned,

Maintaining the college's accreditation is paramount…but your actions at the bargaining table directly threaten this progress and should stop. The CFT will not stand for accreditation being used the District as an excuse for advancing additional, permanent pay cuts and reductions in health benefits and threatening to impose them if the union doesn't acquiesce.

Did CCSF get fair treatment from the ACCJC, apart from the way the district used the process?  A number of concerns have been raised about the process the commission used.  The ACCJC accredits only 5% of the country's higher education institutions, but has issued 35% of the sanctions.  The cost of meeting its recommendations, made under fear of the sanctions process, absorbs a larger and larger chunk of district funds, during a time of budget cuts, and faculty time, as classes themselves are reduced.  Even before it was sanctioned, CCSF had paid almost $140,000 for costs related to accreditation in the previous year alone.

Once the process started, CCSF was just given 8 months to comply, and moved directly to a “Show Cause” status without any intervening steps.  Newly-elected trustee Rafael Mandelman says that meeting the commission's recommendations should be “a collaborative process that requires a lot of input from students, that has to be negotiated with employee groups.”

Faculty, staff and student groups, however, have generally been left out of the decision-making process.  The commission itself seems cavalier about its own rules for public input.  It requires 30 day notice of all public meetings, and requires statements from the public to be submitted 15 days beforehand.  Yet it announced a January 9 meeting only four days before, and ignored requests for at least 12 of its own policies it intended to consider at that meeting.

CFT President Josh Pechthalt wrote in a letter

It is difficult not to conclude that the way it neglects to provide notice to the public of its activities, the Commission actually seeks to discourage or effectively restrict public attendance at its meetings.

Other faculty groups are also concerned about the commission process.  Jeffrey Michels, chair of the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges (FACCC) calls for accreditation reform, including lengthening the cycle to 8-10 years, involving a wider range of participants, relying more on cooperation, and avoiding recommendations that encroach on negotiable issues, among others.  In 2009 a task force formed the State Chancellor's Office urged such recommendations, “which were largely ignored the Commission,” he says.

FACCC President Dennis Frisch notes that 27 California community colleges (25% of the state total) are currently being sanctioned.  Two of them have “Show Cause” orders — College of the Redwoods in Eureka and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.  “Many faculty,” he says, “are openly asking whether the ACCJC has exceeded thee scope and purpose of its own mission.”  According to Frisch, the FACCC may ask for a Joint Legislative Audit Committee audit of the costs to districts of complying with ACCJC standards and recommendations.

The Commission itself is not a public agency, but a self-perpetuating private one, overseen the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.  It is funded educational institutions, which have no input or oversight rights.  What gives its recommendations power is its recognition the U.S. Department of Education, which will only fund financial aid at accredited institutions.  During the Obama administration, the department has put pressure on the commission and others like it to take  a harder line on sanctions, concerned that students aren't receiving an education that enables them to get jobs and repay loans.

In 2007, the Department sanctioned the commission itself, for failing to enforce the two-year rule, which requires sanctioned institutions to come into compliance with commission findings within two years.  Commission President Barbara Beno, former president of Berkeley's then-Vista College (now Berkeley City College) then warned districts that time limits would be strictly enforced.  “At risk is the commission's recognition,” she told EdSource Today.

Part of that pressure comes from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, whose chair, Jamienne Studley, executive director of Public Advocates in San Francisco, stated, “the accreditors are getting the message loud and clear.”  In an interview with Lewis Freedberg, she discounted criteria such as student-faculty ratios and college curricula and said, “we are increasingly looking at student outcomes.”  She mentioned specifically the time students take to earn degrees, and how well they do at work afterwards.

Said Messer:

In this worldview education reformers are beginning to look at higher education like K-12, and propose similar measures. They're very concerned with the completion rate, and that we  move students through quickly.  They increasingly call for “performance metrics” like the Student Learning Outcomes.  You can see that teacher evaluation tied to them is coming.  They see community colleges as a means to turn out hirable people, or students for four-year institutions.  We see them as institutions serving the broader community.  At CCSF we have that broader conception.  Our students move in and out, they have jobs and kids, some are learning English-as-a-Second-Language, while others are seniors interested in lifelong learning.  Not everyone is coming for a degree.  We need an accreditation process that takes this diversity into account.

Robert Shireman, director of California Competes in San Francisco, and former deputy undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, told Freedberg that although the commission needed more enforcement tools other than forcing a closure, “At some point you have to let the hatchet fall.”

Comments faculty member and Local 2121 Executive Board member Allen Fisher,

The source of the Federal government's pressure on the accreditation commissions' to sanction more colleges [includes] the very wealthy activists like Bill Gates who represent corporations and large foundations. Their efforts to 'improve accountability' through measured outcomes and the demand to push students through faster are likely to discourage students and limit educational opportunities.

When the district's report to the ACCJC is made on March 15, Agrella will ask for either an extension of time, he says, or for the district to be put on probation.  Whatever the commission's decision, it is clear that the teachers, staff and faculty at CCSF have a long a difficult road to restore their jobs, rights, classes and educational services to the level that once existed in this city.


Editor's note: On Thursday, CCSF faculty, staff and students invite you to join them for a walk-out, march and rally to save CCSF. Click here for details.


This article originally appeared in CFT's Perspective magazine.