The City College shell game

How city college plays fast and loose with $130 million in bond money
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Part one in a Guardian series

gwschulz@sfbg.com

The motto of San Francisco's community college is "The truth will set you free."

For taxpayers, that's a painful irony. Since 1997, the district has moved around $130 million in bond money in a fiscal shell game, taking funds that the voters were told would go to one set of projects and spending the money on others.

The half-billion-dollar bond program is now at least $225 million over budget, in part because of what the school admits was shoddy planning, and City College is considering asking voters to approve yet another set of bonds to catch up.

And all of this happened without a detailed performance audit.

Among the transfers and overruns we've discovered in a review of the bond program:

<\!s>City College made up for a planned gym's mammoth budget shortfalls by transferring more than $53 million from other projects, like the new Performing Arts Center, improvements to the Balboa Reservoir (that massive, sunken eyesore of a parking lot west of the Ocean Avenue Campus), and an academic partnership with San Francisco State University.

<\!s>Construction on the Performing Arts Center was supposed to begin in 2004, but it's gone nowhere. According to the school's most recent estimates, the center now will cost $125.8 million, an increase of 152 percent from the original $50 million.

<\!s>Two new campuses planned for the Mission and Chinatown neighborhoods are now running a combined $78 million over budget. School administrators this May requested an additional $6 million to complete the Mission campus. Plans for the Chinatown facilities were originally unveiled in 1997 to voters, who were later told construction would begin in 2006. Today the designs are mired in a political battle with neighborhood residents, and City College hasn't broken ground on the project.

In at least one case, the school has acknowledged that a $1.3 million reallocation took place without prior authorization from its independently elected overseers, the Board of Trustees. Administrators later asked the board to consent to the transfer retroactively.

"We're always asked to take this money and move it from here to here," complained trustee Milton Marks III, one of the few consistent critics on the board who in the past voted against such reallocations. "It may be justified.... But when I ask if there are programmatic changes, nobody can answer me."

The school calls the transfers "reallocations," and as of May the administration and the board had agreed to shift the bond money five times.

In one case, administrators asked for $70 million in transfers mere weeks after the 2005 election in which voters authorized the school to sell $246.3 million in bonds.

That January 2006 reallocation strongly suggests the office of Chancellor Phil Day knew the school wouldn't be able to complete the projects described to voters but never corrected the ballot handbook or told the media and the public the truth.

Day agreed to a Guardian interview, then canceled it, citing a schedule conflict.

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