By Alisa Messer
OPINION City College is a beacon for all San Franciscans, from immigrants and displaced workers to cash-strapped families seeking educational opportunities for their children. The largest community and junior college in America with more than 90,000 students, City College touches everyone in San Francisco.
Not long after pundits mocked Mitt Romney for encouraging Americans to get "as much education as they can afford," City College of San Francisco was threatened with the loss of its accreditation — in large part because the school is going broke.
City College has faced been five straight years of drastic cuts in state funding — literally tens of millions of dollars. The result is over-flowing classes, employee furloughs, pay cuts, and givebacks, and shutting the doors on far to many students who are unable to get the classes they need.
CCSF has held on by its fingernails, seeking ways to continue to serve a broad range of student needs and maintain educational access during these challenging budgetary times.
But canceled summer sessions amount to tremendous hardships for students, and garage sales and other fundraising in the private sector cannot replace $40 million in lost state funds. So all of the college's employees — from tutors to librarians to custodians and engineers and IT staff and biology professors to deans — have given back.
The accrediting commission isn't taking aim at the quality of education City College provides. Instead, the report focuses on severe budget problems caused mostly by state cuts, and then makes some criticisms about political infighting and weak leadership in the school's top ranks.
The crisis at City College is at the heart of a larger debate in America about access to opportunity. Education remains the most significant factor in social mobility, and we maintain domestic tranquility because most of our citizens embrace the idea they can improve their lot in life with education.
City College is living proof that the theory works — but it requires money, people, and a commitment to a broader mission. City College isn't just San Francisco's biggest school, it's also the city's largest provider of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses and its largest job training and placement agency. City College's partnerships with San Francisco's restaurant and hospitality sector and other industries are national models.
City College is using universal access to education as a powerful engine of economic recovery. While many suburban junior colleges focus on helping high school graduates make the transition to four-year colleges and universities, City College is also teaching immigrants English, helping welfare recipients transition to work, training those in recovery to help their peers through drug and alcohol counseling, and boosting the skills of unemployed and under-employed blue collar workers so they can win increasingly knowledge-intensive jobs.
CCSF's leaders must craft a plan to balance the school's budget and save its accreditation, and we will. We will find new revenue sources, including passing a parcel tax this November. We will maintain accessibility, educational quality, and our mission as a Community College, serving the entire San Francisco community with an essential and irreplaceable focus on low-income and underrepresented students for whom CCSF is the only option.
Perhaps we can even come out of this crisis with a college that is more affordable, accessible, high quality, democratic, and equal than ever.
Alisa Messer is an English teacher at City College and president of AFT 2121, which represents counselors, librarians, and instructors.