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Mission Improbable: City College May Soon Close. And If It Doesn't, It May Never Be the Same. 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014
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Football players clad in black hurl themselves into football players wearing white. "You call that hittin' somebody?" the black-clad quarterback shouts as he picks himself up after a tackle. It's the last Saturday in November, and the City College of San Francisco's Rams, in black, and American River College, in white, square off for the Northern California football championship. The Rams' only loss this season was from American River College, in September. Today they vow redemption. But the Rams have more on the line than just one game, or one championship.

Coach George Rush puts it this way: His team represents a cross section of society, prep school graduates of Saint Ignatius College Preparatory to low-income students from the city's public schools. They all depend on City College of San Francisco to give them a shot at not just a football championship, but middle-class life.

"It's not about who your family is. You step out onto that field and it's about you, and the team, and that moment," Rush says.

But, as it grapples with how it offers classes and who gets to take them, City College as a whole is trying to figure out just who its family is, and who the school is really for.

Last June, the 79-year-old community college's accreditors made moves to revoke its degree accreditation, a move that could soon force the school to close. City Attorney Dennis Herrera quickly swooped in, filing suit against the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges. The ACCJC's evaluation of the school was unfair, he said, as the commission had a political ax to grind against City College.

The commission wrote letters and drummed up support for the Student Success Initiative, a statewide effort to focus resources on community college students intending to transfer to four-year universities. City College in turn defended its lifelong students, its immigrants, its jobless adults, and others who don't fit so neatly into the college narrative, but who still need an education.

In his suit, Herrera alleges that City College is the guinea pig in the commission's local push for reform. (San Francisco Superior Court's Judge Curtis Karnow heard closing arguments on Dec. 9. There is no formal date on when he'll announce his decision.)

There is hope it will not close. But a trial win by Herrera would only mean the commission gets to accredit City College again; issues of funding and student access will remain.

Advocates say the college is at a crossroads, not only in the trial, but in deciding just who it's supposed to serve. Coach Rush's players are among myriad San Franciscans who find new purpose at City College, becoming nurses, aeronautical engineers, firefighters, citizens, biotechnicians, and child care practitioners. Every year that City College produces these graduates, it bolsters the city's economy to the tune of $300 million, according to the city's Budget & Legislative Analyst. They're the workers who make the Bay Area go.

Even if City College wins a reprieve, the commission may reshape the college into something unrecognizable. California has long enshrined into law who is entitled to a community college education in the state: everyone. Open access itself is now on trial, as the college and the commission fight over how to best use dwindling state funds.

And, as the trial winds down, some City College students may be left behind to give others a leg up.

At that trial, City College's survival came down to the value of one of two numbers: 92 or 56.

It's Thursday, Oct. 30, the fourth of five days of testimony to decide the school's fate. Deputy City Attorney Ronald Flynn cross-examined Steve Kinsella, one of the ACCJC commissioners who voted for closure. In San Francisco's Superior Court, more than 200 eyes from the City College community faced their executioner.

"In my view it all ends up on the financial statement," Kinsella said on the witness stand. He said one number was unsustainable: 92, the percentage of City College's budget going to employee salaries and benefits. The growing debt incurred by benefits and salaries the college owed was a problem, Kinsella said. And instead of correcting the alleged deficiency, "They were not acting."

City College was mired in debt. But, Flynn retorted, the problem did not start with the school: California was late in paying money it owed to many government entities, forcing City College to borrow money from the city of San Francisco to pay its debts on time.

He also reminded Kinsella of the Bay Area's skyrocketing cost of living.

But by depending on a bailout from San Francisco, the college is "a liability to others," Kinsella replied. Bad bookkeeping, in the end, was key to his vote to shutter the school. Throughout the trial, many of his fellow commissioners echoed this reasoning.

Flynn in turn argued that the commission's standards do not specify what percentage of a college's budget should go to salaries and benefits, and that the commission, in calculating this alleged bad budget, didn't factor in millions of dollars in new funding because it came after key accreditation review dates. That omission allegedly gave an inaccurate picture of the school's financial situation.

Days before Kinsella testified, California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris sat in the wood-paneled witness stand. He was concerned with a different number: 56, the percentage of students City College awards degrees to, or transfers to four-year colleges annually.

This is 8 percent higher than the average for the state's 112 community colleges. On the witness stand, commission President Barbara Beno said graduation rates do not carry weight in accreditation decisions.

92 versus 56. Bad budgets versus high graduation rates. The two figures draw an ideological line in the sand.

David Bergeron says the problem stems from what's deemed important: National accreditors focus only on how things are done in a college, and not on how successfully they produce educated graduates.

Bergeron's job is to take the bird's-eye view. He formerly served in the U.S. Department of Education and is now a fellow with the national think tank Center for American Progress.


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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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