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Editor’s Note: CCSF’s crisis is a lesson in public education funding

By Sara Bloomberg
The Guardsman

As Washington deals with $85 billion in sequester related cuts, a game of political chicken is playing out here in San Francisco, which could have serious implications for California’s entire community college system.

Lacking strong lobbyists in Sacramento, California’s public education system has endured incessant budget cuts since voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, and the state now ranks 49th nationally in K-12 per-pupil spending, according to an Ed Source study released in January.

Since 2008, the state’s community colleges have lost 12 percent—or $809 million—of their total funding, according to the state chancellor’s office.

City College lost $17 million in 2011-2012 and in order to stave off further cuts the administration dipped into its reserves and drained them down to less than $3 million. It should be closer to $10 million, or five percent of its budget, according to guidelines set by the state chancellor’s office.

Compounding the problem, the school loses desperately needed state funding when enrollment drops, which it has.

The state reimburses the college based on the number of full-time equivalent students—not the actual student headcount. That number peaked in 2008 at 37,190 (or approximately 110,000 actual students) and dropped last year to around 32,000.

There are certainly administrative and financial problems at City College. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges made that clear in its July 2012 report that slammed the school with a near death sentence.

Part of what made the commission’s decision so shocking, though, was the absence of any warning. The school was in good standing with the commission in 2006, the last year it was subject to re-evaluation.

Despite the general perception that City College is on the brink of closure, it most definitely is not. San Francisco should be more concerned about layoffs and cuts to programs that are difficult to reverse once they are implemented.

The Board of Trustees approved the final “show cause” report on Feb. 28, which the commission will use to determine if the college has “corrected the deficiencies noted by the Commission and is in compliance with the Eligibility Requirements, Accreditation Standards, and Commission Policies,” as stated in the commission’s July letter to the college.

Little faith

In January, Robert Agrella, the school’s state-appointed special trustee, told state officials that City College won’t make the deadline and might need to ask for an extension.

“We’re making significant progress. I don’t want to minimize that,” Agrella said, as reported by the SF Chronicle, and added that, as far as meeting the March 15 deadline goes, “That’s going to be an impossibility in my opinion.”

Such a statement belies the power of the commission.

Although returning the school to a “good standing” status would be ideal, the administration should be striving for “probation” at the very least—a sanction one step up from “show cause”—instead of propagating an extreme notion of “do or die”.

It’s a scare tactic and the college community has a right to be upset about it.

Three other schools were recently removed from their sanctions, two of which were on “show cause,” just like City College. As of Feb. 11, Cuesta College is now on “warning” and College of the Redwoods is on “probation.”

There has been a lot of negative media attention about the college over the past eight months, but ultimately the college’s precarious situation is symptomatic of a lack of funding for public education.

Funding brings hope

Although not as strong as the defunct Millionaire’s Tax would have been had it made to the ballot in November, funds garnered from [Gov. Jerry] Brown’s Proposition 30 are expected to bring in nearly $200 million in additional funding to the state’s community colleges next year.

City College will also get about $16 million annually for eight years from the local parcel tax passed in November. How it plans to use those funds is already proving controversial, but at least the funds will be there.

College officials plan to use the parcel tax funds for beefing up the reserves and satisfying pension obligations. Many faculty, staff and students are upset because the language of Proposition A called for saving classes and preventing layoffs.

The administration’s response? Funds from the parcel tax will be used in any way they deem necessary to satisfy the accrediting commission, because that’s the only way to “save CCSF.”

The financial and administrative problems at City College do not warrant shutting the school down.

Upwards of 85,000 students would be displaced, and the local economy would lose an institution that trains a large portion of the workforce, including police officers, paramedics and small business owners.

The school has made a lot of progress over the past eight months, and the accrediting commission should be pleased, even though a significant portion of the college community is clearly not happy with many of the changes being implemented.

It should be noted that new legislation was introduced in the state assembly last month that would provide emergency funds to community colleges experiencing low enrollment while under probation or show cause sanctions.

Known as Assembly Bill 1199, it is sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino and is a desperately needed safety net for California’s community colleges.

A version of this article was originally published in The Ingleside Light.

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