Discord at City College as accreditation cliff nears

Teachers and other protesters demonstrate outside the CCSF chancellor's "state of the school" speech.
Joe Fitzgerald

More than 300 City College of San Francisco (CCSF) faculty and supporters protested their chancellor’s “state of the school” address at CCSF’s Diego Rivera Theater on Friday (Jan.11) morning as the clock continues to tick down to March 15 -- when the community college accrediting commission will decide the future of City College.

Teachers and administrators are now battling over the right way to meet the challenge of staying accredited. The administrators are trying desperately to “cut the fat,” and the teachers contend the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater.

As we’ve reported previously, CCSF’s new divide is over the use of the $14 million a year generated by the parcel tax voters created through Proposition A in November. The school’s administration still wants faculty to take an 8.8 percent pay cut, and already has over 70 faculty and staff “not being rehired” next semester. The school plans to use the money to shore up their fiscal reserves, one of the many sticking points the accrediting commission wanted them to adhere to in order to stay accredited and open.

The teachers see it differently. They volunteered and worked long hours, rallying and passing out flyers about Prop. A for months leading up to the election, with little to no financial support from administrators and the college’s Board of Trustees. They contend that Prop A’s language, which you can read online, specifically outlines that the money should be used to prevent layoffs -- which the school has decided to do anyway.

The teachers, understandably, are upset.

“A lot of our teachers work really hard, and this is a slap in the face, frankly,” Greg Keech, the English as Second Language Department chair, said to faculty the day of the rally, outside the college’s Diego Rivera Theater.

The theater houses a giant, elaborate fresco, Diego Rivera’s World War II era mural “Pan-American Unity," which depicts the 1940s working class laboring toward a common goal, a stark contrast to the college’s divisions. As the cries of the marchers echoed from just outside the door, CCSF’s chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman stood at the theater’s main stage defending City College’s faculty pay cuts and recent layoffs.

“Over the years, CCSF has managed to serve far more students than they had resources available, a very laudable goal,” Scott-Skillman said to her audience of mostly faculty and staff. “However, harsher austerity measures unfortunately are being implemented to address this imbalance.”

The San Francisco Chronicle seems to think Scott-Skillman has a point, writing an editorial siding with the administration. If the Chronicle and the college’s leadership had their way, the teachers would just shut-up and take their medicine.

“I think the protest today was an unproductive response to a house that’s burning down,” Steve Ngo, the newly re-elected college trustee, told us. “We’re trying to put out the fire, and [faculty] are arguing about the drapes.”

But teachers have good reason to be worried. When a commission with the power to close your school holds a gun to your head and essentially says, “You have one year to implement drastic reforms at your college that will last years, or we’ll close you down,” yeah, of course teachers are going to be worried about the lasting affects on their careers and their students.

Some of those changes are happening already, teachers told us.

“People without academic expertise, who don’t know the field, will lead the departments,” said Kristina Whalen, the director of the speech department at CCSF. “Academic reorganization will have automotive and child development under the same dean -- those fields aren’t related.”

The previous model had teachers elected from within their own departments who represented those departments, leading to at least 60 department chairs at CCSF. The college has since consolidated those positions, and is moving to hire a smaller number of deans to handle the same jobs. Faculty who have worked under deans at other colleges didn’t have many kind things to say about the experience.

“I’ve worked at other schools where you reported to a dean,” art teacher Andrew Leone told us as rally-goers marched and yelled behind around him. He’s worked at San Francisco State University, and USF, among other schools, he said.  “The dean has so many responsibilities, there’s no way they can deal with them all.”

The chairpersons at City College were more efficient at taking care of teachers’ needs, he said. Now, “they’re giving us a top down corporate model. They’re turning us into Wal-mart.”

Meanwhile, the tally of concessions made to keep the college open keeps piling up. More than 160 teachers have left the school due to retirement and attrition without being replaced, and more than 50 faculty members and 30 staff have been reported as being let go so far, according to data from the teacher’s union, AFT 2121. The union won’t know the full number of faculty not rehired until early March, and the total amount of “not rehired teachers,” can be hard to track. Additionally, three school sites, Castro, Presidio and Fort Mason, will close soon.

Despite the drastic measures being taken, Interim-Chancellor Scott-Skillman made the case that arguing about them is a moot point.

“This college represents a promise to the surrounding communities that this is a place of quality and opportunity to acquire higher education, “Scott-Skillman said. “Reality check:  unfortunately, we can no longer keep that promise for everyone.”

Trustee Ngo took it a step further, saying that the protest could hurt the school’s chances at keeping its accreditation, especially in light of CCSF asking the state for an extension to the March 15 deadline for accreditation.

“These protests are hurting our chance for an extension,” Ngo said. “If [the accrediting commission] sees protests of our interim chancellor, they’ll think that, chances are, these people aren’t ready for change.”

Ngo could be right. Notably, the accreditation commission’s evaluation report of the college, which is the guiding document of what the college has to fix, called out the school’s divisions: “Despite the unified commitment to the college mission, there exists a veil of distrust among the governance groups that manifests itself as an indirect resistance to board and administrative decision-making authority.”

Beyond just the teachers, at least one person was happy to see the protest. CCSF student Kitty Lui , 26, is a a few units shy of transferring to San Francisco State, and sees the cuts at City College as a threat to her education, she said.

“We need good jobs, especially here in SF, so we’re not living paycheck to paycheck,” Lui said. “It’s inspiring to see so many teachers here -- it gives me hope.”