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Is City College Still For Everybody? Abrupt Class Cuts Spark SF Debate

Lee Romney
Faculty, students and union leaders protest City College of San Francisco class cuts outside City Hall on January 31, 2020 before a hearing on the impact on vulnerable students.

City College of San Francisco recently eliminated more than 300 class offerings -- without consulting academic chairs, students or city leaders. Those protesting the cuts say the very identity of the institution is at stake. Sound familiar? It is.

The class cuts to CCSF's spring line-up came in mid-November, just before spring registration. They followed hundreds of other cuts over the past two years. Because the 85-year-old community college is in trouble — again. 

It's only been three years since the venerable institution emerged from a long and bitter accreditation battle. But the bigger fight is ongoing — about how City College can stay solvent, and whether its core values as accessible and affordable to all are at risk. 

"In my class, there are bus drivers, there are teachers, there are nurses, there are bartenders. There's a parent who was formerly homeless," one woman shares at a rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. 

It's a sunny Friday, and about three dozen protesters are gathered here to chant, to vent, and to talk about keeping the "community" in the city's only community college. A banner sign reads "Honk if you [heart] CCSF" and car horns blare. 

When the rally is over, protesters will file past couples being married in the City Hall rotunda and into a second-floor room for a public hearing on how these most recent cuts are hurting students of color, low-income students and other vulnerable student groups.

Marcos Cruz, a student organizer who doubles as an organizer for AFTLocal2121 — the faculty union — is the day's emcee. He wears a button that says "We Are All City College." with a heart on it. Because he explains, "before the accreditation crisis happened there were about 80,000 students at the college, which means that one in eight people in San Francisco was connected to City College either directly or indirectly."

That message, that City College is the people's college, comes up over and over. That's because it's in jeopardy.

Some students who come to CCSF focus on for-credit classes -- to earn certificates or associate degrees or transfer to four-year universities. Their goals are measurable. And they've become enshrined -- and prioritized -- in the state's definition of community college success. In fact, the way the state funds community colleges is about to change, to incentivize schools to place more students in that graduation pipeline. 

But plenty of other CCSF students take classes for the love of it, or to sharpen their skills so they can get better jobs in a city where the wealth gap is growing. They're sometimes referred to as lifelong learners. 

Cruz says, the fight right now, is whether to celebrate and support "lifelong learning and classes that the community wants instead of just classes that get you out of City College as soon as possible and into a four-year institution.

"City College is accessible education," he says, "and it should be not just for transferring to a four-year institution, but also just to learn different things that you're interested in and find new passions in life."

There is no question that City College is struggling financially. A recent audit called out a pattern of deficit spending. Reserves have fallen below the minimum level set by the state chancellor. The current difficulties are connected to the accreditation crisis that dragged on from 2012 through 2017. Accreditors focused in part on some of these very issues, contending that the college was living beyond its means. 

But the aggressive accreditation process — targeted in a city lawsuit as vindictive — created its own financial strain. Once the largest community college in the state, CCSF suffered declining enrollment as the uncertainty wore on, and that deepened its financial woes. 

But the bigger battle was about more than that. The chancellor of the state community college system, accreditors, and state legislators were already pushing a definition of student success that didn't really fit with the CCSF ethos of serving everyone, including lifelong learners. 

City College Chancellor Mark Rocha has said he made the latest class cuts with the new state funding formula in mind. He also said his main goal was to "prioritize the graduation of students of color." That notion, that the cuts are in the best interest of students of color — doesn't sit well with the students and faculty who show up at the City Hall rally. 

They say the chancellor's cuts — to credit and non-credit classes — are having the opposite effect. Ramona Coates is the former chair of African American Studies at City College, and she's now part-time. African American Studies got its start after a historic student strike more than half a century ago. But today, the department has no full-time faculty, and class offerings have dropped from 8 to 4.

"Students of color find themselves, their identity, their history, their hope, their future, their self worth when they take ethnic studies, social justice, African American studies courses," Coates tells the crowd.

It turns out, other ethnic studies programs, along with women and gender studies, have been shrinking too. Fewer classroom offerings. More online. And that, Coates said, does not work for students who need to see their role models in person, to be in a welcoming community where they can learn to believe in themselves. 

"Online is fantastic but not everybody can learn the way they need to online," Coates says. "They need that communal interaction with faculty. They need that." 

This whole question — of who is being helped and who is being harmed by the cuts — is the focus of the hearing that's about to start inside City Hall: It's a joint meeting of members of the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco Unified School District commissioners and City College trustees. They want to understand the impact not just on students of color, but on low-income students, older students and high-school students who need City College classes to graduate. 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
SF Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks at a rally on January 31, 2020 about the impact of CCSF class cuts on students of color and other vulnerable students.

Supervisor Shamann Walton called for today's hearing. He says mostly they want transparency. 

"You cannot say that you're focused on equity and cut hundreds of classes without having conversations with faculty, without having conversations with students, without having conversations with other leadership in San Francisco," he says to cheers. 

Walton, along with Supervisor Eric Mar, earlier already introduced an ordinance to allocate $2.7 million from the city budget to CCSF to restore the classes that were just cut. It passed on a 7-4 vote. But City College Chancellor Rocha has told the Mayor and Supervisors he doesn't want the money, that he stands by the cuts as necessary belt tightening. And Mayor London Breed has vetoed it. 

Today's hearing is important for city leaders who want CCSF to reverse these class cuts. Because if the city doesn't learn more about why the college did what it did, and who will suffer as a result, convincing the mayor to hand over the money will be tough. 

Appearing at the hearing to speak for CCSF is Associate Vice Chancellor Terrance Bynum. But he doesn't come with any data about who has been impacted by the cuts. Instead, he reads from the college mission statement -- about that doubled down focus on moving students towards graduation. Supervisors and SFUSD commissioners on this committee have been waiting for more than a month for specifics. They're not happy. 

Supervisor Sandra Fewer says that "hard data" is essential, "so we can say that if we don't fund this, this is who is going to be hurt." SFUSD Commissioner Alison Collins asks for numbers by group — including race, ethnicity, age, ability — over time, in for credit and non-credit classes. Then Supervisor Matt Haney, who is chairing the meeting, weighs in. 

"Here we are at the Board of Supervisors in the City, and we're trying to give you money," he says, shaking his head and laughing just a little at the craziness of it. "We're trying to help with this. We want to have your back with this. And if you're making it hard even for us to have your back, that's raising a lot of other questions for a lot of people in the community." 

The supervisors who voted against that $2.7 million appropriation say it's a short-term bailout that won't do anything to fix the longer-term problems. There have been a number of attempts to try to right the CCSF financial ship in the wake of the accreditation fiasco. San Franciscans stepped up to help, approving several parcel taxes. State lawmakers passed legislation that funneled extra money — known as stabilization funding — to City College beginning in 2014. But those funds stopped flowing three years later. 

City College Trustee Alex Randolph takes the microphone and says, it's time to face reality.

"In the past, we've budgeted on projections and ideas," he says. "The students will come back, enrollment will be better. We'll be able to get our expenses down. That hasn't come." 

Enrollment did get a bounce when the city kicked in to make CCSF tuition-free for San Francisco residents. But it's nowhere near where it once was. And the faculty union says by cutting highly-enrolled classes, the chancellor is now driving enrollment down. Non-credit classes for older adults took a huge hit. The majority were canceled. And lots of credit classes got cut too. 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
CCSF students, faculty and other supporters line up for public comment at a hearing on January 31, 2020 of a joint committee of SF supervisors, SFUSD commissioners and City College trustees.

When it's time for public comment, it's clear there's a lot of pain all around. Elderly San Franciscans say their classes — in figure drawing and music appreciation and computer literacy and Tai Chi — were not only intellectually and physically enriching but helped combat solitude and isolation. 

One woman says her class on the politics of the Middle East was essential to the certificate she was expecting to receive at the end of this semester. But the class was axed. Metalworks and automotive classes — and certificate programs — have been cut from the Evans campus, which plays an important role in workforce training. And in LGBTQ studies, more classes have moved online, which one student says takes away a sense of community that has literally been life-saving. 

Meanwhile, in women and gender studies, the administrators canceled the non-credit self-defense program, which is part of a program for survivors of domestic violence. "Who does that affect?" one instructor asks and answers. "We know our non-credit students are low-income." 

Before the meeting ends, City College pledges to dig up the data. Supervisor Walton says the committee will probably meet again once that happens. 

Students, faculty, and AFTLocal2121 had also planned to keep lobbying Mayor London Breed, in hopes that she will release that $2.7 million to City College to reverse the recent class cuts. On February 14, she vetoed it anyway.