Were CCSF budget decisions irresponsible, or principled resistance to the downsizing of California's community colleges?
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."
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.
Three years ago, the California Legislature said when the community colleges cut courses, they shouldn't cut courses involving transfer, career technical education, and basic skills, State Community College Chancellor Jack Scott said in a phone interview.
Scott is responsible for overseeing all 112 community colleges in California, a quarter of all community colleges in the country. He's on the cusp of retirement, and the end of his tenure has been marked with the changing mission of the colleges he oversees.
"I want it clearly understood that I personally want to see the community colleges offer all the classes it wants to," he said. "But with scarcity, you have to prioritize. If you offer the same classes you did before, you'll go bankrupt. Something has to give."
The state agreed and asked community colleges to prioritize enrollment, with a focus on recent high school graduates who plan to transfer to a university in two years and anyone else seeking a degree or certificate.
If community colleges can't afford to offer classes sought by their broader communities, and K-12 schools are ill-equipped to plug back into that task, does the notion of continuing adult education just fade away?
David Plank, executive director of policy analysis for California Education, a Stanford University-based research center, says it just may: "I don't think that responsibility will be reimposed on K-12 districts because it was always seen as a sort of add-on supplementary responsibility."
California's Master Plan for Higher Education — which mandates that community colleges provide classes for everyone — only worked as long as there was money to fund it. But Plank says that money has been steadily shrinking since 1978 when voters passed Proposition 13, which capped property tax increases and raised the voting threshold for the Legislature to increase other taxes.
As funding from Sacramento has been slashed by more than $500 million in the past year alone, California's 112 community colleges have turned away more than 300,000 students trying to enter the system. If Governor Jerry Brown's tax proposal wins in November, community college funding will stay at about the same level, but if it fails, the system will see further cuts of more than $340 million.
"The system now is breaking down," Plank said. "We've finally reached a point where the state's share is too small to hold things together. We see tuition going up at very rapid rates and a substantial deterioration both in access and affordability."
In flush times, community colleges could serve everyone — rich and poor, those seeking new skills and others working toward a new degree. Now, the community college system faces two choices if it's unable to find new sources of revenue: continue on the path of deep cuts, or change its priorities altogether.
City College Board member Steve Ngo cites new statistics that show enrollment in English as Second Language (ESL) classes are trending down, a sign that those classes should be cut first. "The community should lead. If the demand is down, you're not serving your community," he said.
Yet others say community colleges should strive to serve everyone who needs them.
"Some [classes] are really valued by our Pacific Islander population, but their enrollment may not be as high. Should those classes go away? I don't think so. It's something I feel like the whole college community needs to come to grips with" CCSF math instructor Hal Hunstman said.
City College ESL instructor Susan Lopez said her classes have been cut about 29 percent over a decade, which she considers drastic.
"Despite that large and somewhat intentional reduction, we still serve 20,000 annually throughout the city. By comparison with our very large ESL Department, the English Department serves only 7,000," Lopez said. "How could we abandon those who are most educationally needy and often desperately poor in favor of those who are less needy?
"We need to step up adult education across the board," she said. "The problem is all the pressure to do less and to fund less of this type of education."
The accreditation commission is an independent body, but it's been pressured too.
"In the current climate of increased accountability, our regional accrediting associations find that tight spot to be more like a vice," a commission newsletter said in 2006. "On one side are forces at the national level ready to throw out regional accreditation in favor of a federal approach; while at the local level, they are faced with institutions resistant to rapid change and increased scrutiny."
In the past year, private entities ponied up thousands of dollars to help usher in a new numbers-based approach to education. In 2011, a 20-member body comprised of public and private representatives was charged with evaluating the community college system.
Called the California Community College Student Success Task Force, its creation was mandated by the state, but to many people it reeked of privatization.
Several private organizations funded the task force's work, including the Lumina Foundation, an educational research and grant-making institution with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a controversial lobbying group for private interests that authored the Stand Your Ground gun law.
By fall 2011, students, faculty, and administrators across the state began to question the task force's methods and recommendations, which initially included proposals to cut many non-credit and enrichment courses, restrict financial aid, prioritize transfer students, and cap the number of units one person could take.
Under the veil of increasing so-called "student success," the task force was asking schools to prioritize limited funds and change their missions to once again become "junior" colleges — a fate that City College has refused to accept.
City College's Board of Trustees passed a resolution in November 2011 opposing the task force, nearly unanimously, with Ngo the sole dissenting vote. Then-Chancellor Don Griffin warned that the task force's agenda was a transparent attack on open access that would disproportionately affect poor people and people of color, imploring the board to reject its recommendations.
"They're talking about taking over the vehicle of community colleges and turning it into something else," Griffin said. "We have to take a hard stand because everybody around the state is watching City College of San Francisco."
Students and faculty at City College joined the fight. They spoke out at Board of Governors meetings in Sacramento. They wrote letters, emails, and scathing editorials. The school's student-run school newspaper, The Guardsman, led a statewide campaign opposing the task force.
Despite the public's concerns, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors adopted the task force's final report in January.
"As wonderful as open admissions is, if it's a false promise to an objective, it fails," Peter MacDougall, Board of Governors member and task force chair, said at the January meeting.
"Our objective is to have that promise realized, that's what the recommendations are intended to achieve."
Ultimately, the initiative succeeded, shifting priority enrollment to students who are freshly in the college system. The Task Force report is now Senate Bill 1456, sponsored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal and commonly known as the Student Success Act of 2012.
As everyone waits with crossed fingers hoping for a favorable outcome at the ballot in November, City College officials are fighting keep the school open.
"Do we alter our mission slightly, or fundamentally? It's not clear yet what we're going to do," Ngo said.
The trustees have until October to present the commission with a plan and then until March to prove they can achieve it. In the meantime, the commission requires that preparations be made for potential closure, which Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher and other CCSF officials say won't happen.
Only two other community colleges received a "show cause" order this year: College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College. Yet as of January, 25 percent of California's community colleges are under sanctions, according to the accreditation commission documents.
Federal funding hinges on the certification and other educational institutions, such as the University of California and the California State University systems, only accept transfer credits from other accredited institutions.
Everyone seems to agree that City College is too big to fail — with more than 90,000 students, it's the largest community college in the nation — but how it will look and operate in the future remains unknown.
City College already cut dozens of classes this year — including many with students already enrolled after the spring semester began. But City College isn't alone in its plight.
Santa Monica Community College caused an uproar earlier this year when it proposed charging more for popular classes. As of July 1, classes cost $46 per unit but under Santa Monica's proposal students would pay $180 per unit for courses in high demand.
When students protested this two-tiered payment system in April, police pepper-sprayed them, just five months after UC Davis students received the same brutal treatment for holding a non-violent Occupy-style action against their own tuition hikes.
"What we see is a move towards privatization, in the sense that we are now expecting students to pay a larger share of the cost," Plank said. "Over certainly the last 40 years, California has been steadily disinvesting in post secondary education." Whether tuition increases at the CSUs and UCs in the near future depends on whether voters approve Brown's tax proposal this November. City College's financial future hinges not only on the governor's tax proposal, but a local parcel tax initiative as well. City College needs both to pass in November just to break even. "A lot of San Francisco's workforce is educated at City College," City College board member Chris Jackson said, adding that for poor and working class people, it's the only affordable option. In addition, as veterans return from foreign conflicts, ex-offenders are released from prison and enrollment capped at the state universities, Jackson said, "We need local investment in City College."