Free City College?

Jenny Huang (right), Deanne Liu (middle) and Tina Martin (left) listening to City College graduate Tony Robles’s speech during the rally outside of San Francisco’s City Hall on June 29, 2016. (Photo by Cassie Ordonio/The Guardsman)

Initial steps taken to make City College tuition-free

By Teddy Luther

Supervisor Jane Kim’s proposal for a tuition-free City College has taken its first steps toward realization.

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee approved the proposal by a 4-1 vote to go in front of the full board for a hearing and potential vote on July 11.

Kim already has six co-sponsors for the proposal, along with a strong endorsement from President of the Board London Breed. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the proposal would go on the November general election ballot.

The proposal is two-fold. What would go in front of voters in November is an increase in the real estate property transfer tax for properties worth $5 million or more, dubbed the “mansion tax.” Since this tax increase would legally go into the city’s general fund, the second part of the proposal states that the Board of Supervisors intends to use the newly generated tax funds to make City College tuition free.

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing and committee vote, supporters of the proposal held a rally in front of City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. With over a dozen speakers, the rally was heavily attended by City College students as well as members of AFT 2121, City College’s faculty union. Among the speakers were Supervisors Kim, Breed, Norman Yee, Eric Mar and David Campos, as well as AFT 2121 Vice President Alisa Messer and Alex Randolph of the City College Board of Trustees.

AFT 2121 President Tim Killikelly noted that getting to this point took a collaborative effort between many groups. Highlighting the broad spectrum of students City College serves, Killikelly said there was a need to ensure that this proposal makes sense for San Francisco.

“We think the plan we’ve come up with serves the needs of all groups in our community,” Killikelly said.

The plan would ensure free tuition for all San Francisco residents, as well as those who work at least half-time in the City. Per 2015 enrollment estimates, that would cover more than 80 percent of the City College student body.

Supervisor Kim, along with the City College Board of Trustees, estimates it would cost roughly $13 million annually to fully fund the free tuition proposal.

Prior to voting yes, Supervisors Scott Wiener and Katy Tang voiced concern over the use of the term “mansion tax” as well as the volatility of the transfer tax itself, which city economists estimate could range from $5 million in a bad year to $70 million in a good year. If the tax increase were applied in 2015, it would have brought in $44 million. Kim intends to propose a reserve fund to be set up to cover down years.

According to Jay Cheng of the San Francisco Association of Realtors, 97 percent of the funds generated from the real estate transfer tax increase would be coming from properties worth $25 million or more, almost all of which are commercial buildings, not residences.

Whether the funds are coming from commercial or residential taxes is beyond the point argues City College Board of Trustees member Amy Bachrach. She envisions a San Francisco “where our budgets reflect our priorities.”

The last time City College was tuition-free was 1983.

Win-Mon Kyi of the CCSF Student Solidarity Committee spoke at both the rally and the hearing, and also voiced a hope for returning to the values and priorities of a City College that serves its community in the most far-reaching way possible.

“It has been the student and faculty community since day one that have been fighting for the values of City College,” Kyi said, “and one of those priorities is making [City College] free and accessible, and we’re here today to fight for that.”