When your options are bad, terrible, and unthinkable, how do you choose which way to go? And should that decision be graded on a curve that takes into account the dire fiscal circumstances facing most public colleges in California these days?
City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which serves more than 90,000 students a year, last year did what some consider unthinkable: laying off administrators and leaving a reserve fund at dangerously low levels in order to save classes and stave off faculty layoffs. The current $187 million operating budget has a reserve of only $2.2 million, or just over 1 percent compared to the state-recommended 5 percent.
Such decisions may cost the college its accreditation and threaten its very existence, but they also represent legitimate differences over what role educational institutions should play in their communities.
In June, the college came under fire for administrative and financial mismanagement by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a private organization that evaluates K-12 schools and higher education institutions every six years.
Although the commission applauded the school for its commitment to students, it placed the school under its most severe sanction before accreditation is terminated: "show cause."
It identified eight problem areas that the college has failed to address since 2006, which include measuring student learning outcomes, attaining financial solvency, and revising the college's mission statement to reflect current fiscal realities.
"The team finds that the current, ongoing funding for San Francisco City College appears insufficient to fully fund the mission of the college as it is currently conceived," the commission wrote in its June report. "The team advises the college to assure the mission of the college is obtainable based on accurate short-term and long-term funding assumptions."
Essentially, the commission is recommending a refocusing of the school's mission to prioritize college transfer classes. The report went on to say that too many people making decisions through a highly decentralized governance system slowed down or halted altogether the college's ability to make cuts where it needed to — or where the state and commission thought cuts should be made.
These competing visions of how community colleges should continue to exist have driven a wedge between local college officials and state-level decision makers — a clash made clear through City College's accreditation woes.
"It's not that City College isn't doing a good job, it's that these are emerging trends we have," former Student Trustee Jeffrey Fang said. "In the long run, it might actually improve City College. The bad part is that it came at a time when we are so strapped and mired neck deep in political games."
Those games have starved funding for public education statewide, in the process redefining the role of community colleges.
"City College has a very ambitious mission. Part of that mission is that it's a true community college," CCSF spokesperson Larry Kamer said. "Now, decisions are being made de facto by the budget and we need to re-evaluate that mission."
PUTTING THE "COMMUNITY" IN COLLEGE
Adult education used to be integrated into K-12 districts. But over the years, two-year "junior" colleges took over that responsibility, transforming them into today's "community" colleges.
The newly minted community colleges began serving thousands of immigrants learning English, job seekers needing new skills, and elderly citizens looking to continue their education. But when California's budget crisis hit a critical point, that all began to change.