Military veteran Corey Iwanski hoped his career would take off after completing City College of San Francisco’s Aircraft Maintenance Technology (AMT) program. But his dream of becoming an aircraft technician was grounded when the program abruptly shut down in March 2020.
“They knew this was coming,” Iwanski said. “And they had no plan to do anything about it.”
The AMT program’s facility was under a lease extension at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for three years. The COVID-19 pandemic hastened its closure.
“Covid was just the match,” Iwanski said. “There was an underlying problem the entire time.”
“However, this work has yet to be funded or scheduled, so still many years away,” SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel said.
The airport’s long-term plans also could include a $30 million investment for a SFO Academy, Airport Director Ivar Satero said at a public forum in February 2021.
A private aeronautics academy, which typically costs between $20,000 to $50,000, would not help students like Iwanski though.
“The program bankrupted my GI Bill from the military,” Iwanski said. “So, there’s no money left.”
Losing the lease at SFO
Since 1969, SFO has accommodated various iterations of the AMT program, first at the Pan American cafeteria and then at its old terminal building before it eventually relocated to the airport’s North Field facilities.
In 1977, the City and County of San Francisco and the Community College District entered a 40-year lease agreement that allowed the AMT program to reside at SFO for $1 a year. The agreement was a shared commitment to support a workforce training program that served a working-class population.
But as the airport expanded, its priorities changed. A year before the lease was set to expire, Satero informed City College’s chancellor that the airport would not renew it in 2017.
“With unprecedented passenger growth, the airport has had to undertake various capital projects to ensure that we continue to meet both current and forecasted demands,” Satero said. “The leasehold area currently occupied by City College is an important component to the Airport’s redevelopment and must be recaptured.”
A United Airlines partnership
City College’s chancellor and board of trustees requested a joint meeting with the mayor’s office and Satero. With the mayor’s involvement, Satero professed an interest in maintaining an aeronautics program at SFO, suggesting the college partner with United Airlines (UA) to develop an internship program for students to give “them real-world exposure to the job requirements, with the potential of permanent employment.”
Partnering with UA made sense for another reason as well. It was the largest leaseholder at SFO.
“United is a tenant of SFO,” AMT Instructor Michael Tadelle said. “But they have the lease majority, almost three quarters of the area, so they control everything.”
UA dominates the ground and air space at SFO, occupying 117 acres of land while holding 48% of the airline market share, far surpassing all other carriers.
Because UA has the space, facilities and technology, it was the obvious choice to accommodate the AMT program, said AMT instructor Richard Harris who has worked at SFO for 47 years.
“And if you can’t connect those dots together,” Harris said. “Something is wrong.”
A short reprieve
SFO agreed to extend the college’s lease until 2019 with the expectation that the AMT program would find an alternative site by then. Despite its precarious future, City College continued to enroll students in the program.
Johann Cruz was one of those students. He was attracted by the program’s tuition and location at SFO where he could attend classes in between working shifts at UA.
But as Cruz progressed through the program, he noticed some things were amiss, like the absence of City College’s Fire Academy, which used to share their facilities.
“And that’s when we said, ‘Oh, it’s getting serious now. We’re going to vacate this place sooner or later,’” Cruz said. “But we were told that they were negotiating the statute of the school, and that kept us hopeful that we could complete the class before it ended.”
Chancellor Mark Rocha held a meeting with students on May 1, 2019. He assured them that the program was a permanent fixture at SFO, and the college was working with the airport to find an alternative site.
A new site never materialized despite the chancellor’s promises.
Fred Wood, a UA mechanic and Teamster representative, recounted some of the internal discussions that stymied efforts to relocate the AMT program to UA.
One of UA’s buildings could have supported the program, Wood said. But the proposal fell apart when the company raised concerns about security clearance and students’ access to the rest of its facilities. When a separate entrance was suggested, UA came back with new concerns.
“The building was built in the 1970s so restroom doors might not be up to code, sockets might not be up to code,” Wood said. “I know there’s asbestos throughout this property. Whether they used it on the floor, I don’t know. But that’s what I meant by the political part of it.”
Negotiations between UA and City College faltered numerous times before it failed altogether in May 2020.
UA proposed a three-year lease, and the college countered with a request for a 50 to 99-year lease. The college planned on investing $20 million into a new facility and wanted the assurance of a long-term holding.
Three months later, the college received a letter from the airport stating that it would not extend the college’s lease again, and the aeronautics program needed to vacate the premises by December 2020.
Nearly 50 years of history and equipment were packed into 21 trailers that cost $150,000 in transport and storage. The trailers sit at Ocean Campus today, waiting to be inventoried before the board of trustees votes on whether to revitalize the AMT program at City College.
The best of bad options
When the college lost its 40-year-lease at SFO, it did not have a backup plan in place. So, it settled on a facility it already owned, Evans Center. The pushback was immediate.
Faculty and students raised concerns about sharing cramped quarters for programs that needed more space, not less. They also questioned the environmental impact of having classes next to loud aircraft engines that used lead-added fuel.
Bayview-Hunters Point community members opposed the relocation as well, citing a long history of environmental racism directed against a low-income community of color. Residents have suffered from high rates of cancer, asthma and other respiratory illnesses because of polluting industries.
Still, City College administrators continued to promote Evans Center as the best option for the program. “Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of good options,” Vice Chancellor John al-Amin said. “And one of the best of the bad options is Evans.”
The dumping yard of San Francisco
The college investigated alternative locations for the AMT program only after it was evicted from SFO. Mark Swerling, a consultant for the college, examined 20 sites between December 2020 and February 2021.
His report stated that a 20,000 square foot facility would cost approximately $500,000 in annual rent while purchasing one would cost between $5.8 million and $9 million. Ultimately, the college decided that leasing or purchasing a new facility was not feasible.
Chalam Tubati, a resident of Bayview-Hunters Point, had a different take on Swerling’s list. He checked all the addresses and discovered that 17 out of the 20 proposed sites were located in Bayview-Hunters Point. The remaining three were nearby but technically not within the boundaries.
“Whenever there is an environmental burden, it always appears in Bayview,” Tubati said.
Zoning laws dictate where certain industrial activities can occur in San Francisco. Bayview-Hunters Point is one of these areas.
The controversy of CEQA
To assess the environmental impact of bringing the AMT program to Evans Center, the college conducted a preliminary analysis, known as an Initial Study that followed the regulatory guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Findings from the study said there was no significant environmental impact that could not be mitigated.
The two issues that needed to be addressed related to the disturbance of nesting birds and to an increase in ambient noise from the running of engine equipment. Both could be mitigated through the implementation of protective measures, according to the report.
But as former biology instructor Jean Barish explained, the Mitigated Negative Declaration was not a comprehensive Environmental Impact Report, which is costly, time consuming and labor intensive.
“The Mitigated Negative Declaration is basically a self-serving document,” Barish said. “The developer says these are the reasons why there’s no environmental impact, and therefore we think we’re entitled to a Mitigated Negative Declaration. It doesn’t involve nearly as much public input as a full-blown Environmental Impact Report. So, it falls short of what I think should have been done.”
Bradley Angel, the executive director of Greenaction, a health and environmental nonprofit organization, also was critical of what he saw as a flawed CEQA study and the college’s attempt to circumvent a proper environmental review.
“The Initial Study document stated that the project is not located in a sensitive environment, has no cumulative impact, and will not have a significant effect on the environment,” Angel said. “And it’s just mind boggling. Bayview-Hunters Point, according to the state of California, is one of the most at-risk communities in the entire state. It has pretty much all the polluting industries and toxic sites in San Francisco.”
This list includes a Superfund site and sewage treatment plant as well as diesel pollution from freight transport and freeways.
“So, for City College to claim that it’s not a sensitive environment just makes a mockery of reality,” Angel added.
The college meanwhile maintained that it met all the necessary CEQA requirements and its analysis was scientifically sound. It framed the criticisms of the public as social, economic, and political considerations beyond the scope of its environmental study.
The board of trustees approved and adopted the CEQA report in December 2021.
The tip of the iceberg
Nearly a year after its discontinuation at SFO, the college tasked a committee to evaluate the AMT program’s educational merits.
The committee’s report found that the program had a positive impact on students’ aspirations. It led to gainful employment in the aviation industry and fulfilled labor market needs. It also had the necessary staffing and financial resources to run. It just lacked a physical location.
President of the Academic Senate Simon Hanson presented the committee’s findings to the board of trustees in December 2021 with the recommendation that the college revitalize the program. The committee also asked the college to look for alternative locations if Evans Center did not work out.
The board seemed poised to reinstate the AMT program. But then at their most recent meeting, they approved a plan to layoff 38 full-time faculty members and not replace 12 retirees. The AMT program lost its two full-time faculty members, effectively dissolving the entire department.
The college’s tactic of cutting faculty without looking down the pipeline was a concern of Hanson’s.
“Instead of saying, what do we need to support the program, we’re saying who can I lay off?” Hanson said. “And then we’re going to come back and say, well how am I going to run a program now that I’ve taken away the resources? And I think that model is one we’re having more of. The AMT program is the tip of the iceberg.”
Hope is not a plan
While 21 trailers with aircraft equipment collect dust and graffiti at City College, students have given up hope that the AMT program will reopen.
Arun Basnet was in his second semester of coursework when the program shut down.
“I’ve been waiting two years seeing what their plan was and how they were going to move forward,” Basnet said.
Basnet now drives two hours roundtrip to Gavilan College, from SFO where he works as a flight dispatcher, to take the classes he needs for his airframe and powerplant certification. He still does not understand why the college never found a new facility for the AMT program.
“I’m an immigrant — and we have dreams of coming here and studying,” Basnet said. “This is a first world country. How is it possible that students are giving up on their dreams?”
This article was produced for JOUR 35: Data and Multimedia Journalism Spring 2022 semester with guidance from instructor Alex Mullaney and editing from The Guardsman staff.