Leno introduces bill to bolster City College funding, draws fire to Special Trustee

Leno and company announce a bill to bolster City College.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

First City College of San Francisco’s accreditation was provisionally revoked, then students left in droves. Teachers soon started leaving too. Two interim chancellors were hired, then left. 

Through it all, many thought, “won’t someone cut the school a break?” Now someone significant is trying to.

State Sen. Mark Leno today [Mon/10] announced a bill that would provide extra cash for City College as it struggles to maintain its accreditation, which is critical considering state funding is tied to student enrollment.

“The bill has an urgency clause, because we can’t wait for January of next year for it to take effect,” Leno said at the press conference, flanked by Mayor Ed Lee, City College Chancellor Art Tyler, and a bevy of city college officials. 

When news of City College’s potential closure hit, the school’s enrollment dropped like a brick in water. Enrollment is 16 percent lower than last spring, translating to a $23-26 million drop in funding for the next school year. Further years would mean an “extraordinary amount of income” lost at the college, Chancellor Art Tyler told media at a press conference today. 

“City College needs to be there to sustain the workforce of San Francisco,” Tyler said. This year’s funding shortfall will be covered by the one year of stabilization provided by law right now. Leno’s bill would extend this stabilization fund to four years, ending in the 2017-2018 school year. 

“It’s going to take time for the students to have confidence to come back to school,” Tyler told the media. This funding will slow a hemorrhaging of classes that already is taking place. As students left the school, City College decided to cut classes, a controversial move we covered just last week. 

Worse still, like Compton College’s closure in 2005, the data shows that students aren’t necessarily opting to go to other colleges. They’re simply leaving school altogether.

“They’re not going anywhere, they’re sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens to us,” Tyler said.

The bill isn’t all roses, however. Controversial language in the bill would tie the stabilization funds to the school having a state-appointed trustee. The state community college chancellor appointed Bob Agrella to be City College’s “special trustee,” who replaced the college’s duly elected board to right the ship and save the school.

He makes decisions with no public meetings, no public input, with consensus an afterthought rather than a necessity. The state chancellor's office thinks he is necessary to save the college.

But so far his decisions have been controversial within the City College community. He maintained a fiscal relationship with Wells Fargo despite the board’s vote drop them as their bank, and he also cancelled the construction of a new arts building tied to voter approved bond funds

The latest controversy is what City College teachers are now calling “salary-gate,” where it was revealed administrators were hired at higher salaries than the school had previously approved.

“Look at what happened under his watch. We have the scandal of the administrator pay scales after he made the faculty take a 4 percent pay cut,” said Wendy Kaufman, an engineering instructor at City College and leader in the protest organization Save CCSF. She’s referring to Agrella’s hard bargaining with the teacher’s union, resulting in their salaries dropping to their lowest levels since 2007.

Suffice to say, Special Trustee Bob Agrella is not a popular guy in all sectors of the school right now. 

Leno said he would remove language tying funding to the special trustee, but it was submitted on Friday and it has not been removed yet. The Guardian asked him why the language was included in the first place.

“Given as my name is on the front bill as its author I have to take full responsibility for the special trustee being in the bill right now,” he said. “The reason I believe and my sponsor believes it doesn’t belong in the bill because it would attract all the questions like you asked. This is not about the special trustee.”

The change was ushered in over the weekend after pressure from the San Francisco Labor Council and City College’s teacher union, the AFT 2121. 

“Not everyone agrees with the state chancellor’s office that it’s appropriate to have a special trustee for the next four years,” Alisa Messer, president of the AFT 2121, told the Guardian. “With the trampling over of the democratically board of trustees, we all agreed it shouldn’t muddy the waters of a consensus measure.”

Sup. David Campos is proposing a resolution at the Board of Supervisors meeting tomorrow to call for the restoration of the Board of Trustees, and the removal of the special trustee, by July 2014.

Still, amid the controversy around Agrella, this is a win for City College. More funding means classes saved from cancellation, and more opportunity for students. 

“We continue to make progress and work hard, but without the stabilization funding we face a financial cliff,” Agrella said. The bill, SB 965, will be heard in policy committee meetings this spring. As an emergency measure it requires two thirds approval to pass. 

The college’s new chancellor, Art Tyler, put a point on one message that seems to get lost in media coverage of the schools’ woes.

“City College is still open and still accredited,” he said. “It’s not too big to fail, it’s too important to fail.”