by Nanette Asimov
A raucous rally staged by hundreds of faculty at City College of San Francisco could easily have been mistaken for a run-of-the-mill labor protest, drawing cheers and horn-honking from passing motorists along Ocean Avenue.
But the upbeat demonstration, featuring a nine-piece band with horns and drummers, masked a life-or-death issue for the vast college of 85,000 students and 2,500 employees, which has until March 15, 2013 to prove it should remain open and accredited — no sure bet.
“The administration needs to make the right choices for its students, its staff and the future of the institution,” said Fred Glass, who teaches labor history at City College. The college “is under a pretty big threat right now.”
As usual with labor disputes, faculty and administration each blame the other. But in this case, the survival of the college is at stake.
Wildly differing views
If the administration gets its way, faculty members say, the college would be a shrunken shadow of itself, closed to many students who depend on it for a leg up into the middle class, and an inhospitable environment for part-time faculty – the majority of instructors – unable to earn a living wage.
If the faculty vision prevails, administrators say, the college would run afoul of the accrediting commissioners who hold its fate in their hands.
“When you’re spending 92 cents of every dollar on salaries and benefits, that’s the elephant in the room. That’s high even by community college standards,” said Larry Kamer, spokesman for the college, which has had a succession of interim administrators during the accreditation crisis, which began last summer.
“We need to get the overall financial picture stabilized,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”
To renew City College’s seal of approval, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges requires that the school fix each of the 14 deficiencies identified last summer. March 15, 2013 is the deadline for the college to show what it has achieved, and on Thursday, the college trustees were expected to approve their final report to the commission, which will make its judgment in June.
Accreditation — and with it, state funding — could be yanked if the commission is unimpressed with the progress, forcing the college to close. Otherwise, the college could be placed on probation, effectively extending its deadline for making repairs.
City College has already addressed many of its deficiencies — from measuring the effectiveness of its instruction to streamlining tangled lines of decision-making authority.
Money is the largest remaining issue – and that means labor negotiations.
College administrators have already imposed a one-year pay cut of 9 percent on all employees and an ongoing 5 percent cut starting in July. Faculty members are challenging these in court, saying a unilateral pay cut violates their contract.
The college wants to change a 31-year-old labor deal for part-time faculty — about 1,000 of the 1,800 instructors teach part-time — and require them to pay for the full-time health benefits they now enjoy.
The college also wants to reduce its reliance on part-timers by sending dozens of department chairs back to the classroom and transferring most of their administrative duties to seven new deans. The department chairs strongly oppose the plan.
Finally, the college wants to earmark Proposition A parcel tax funds – about $15 million a year for eight years – to shore up its paltry reserves and to pay retiree health benefits as required for accreditation.
The union says the reserves don’t need nearly as much help as the college contends and that the money should be used to avoid pay cuts and bolster classrooms, as promised to voters.
“Use Prop A! Don’t Tuck it Away!” read many signs at the faculty protest.
“We are very concerned that the changes being made to the college we love will be lasting and damaging, and it will mean San Francisco no longer has City College,” said Alisa Messer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121.
The administration says its message is identical to that of the faculty: preserving City College for years to come.
As the trustees convened around 6 p.m. on Thursday, the faculty moved its protest just outside the windows, singing and listening as labor leaders pumped up the crowd for an even bigger protest scheduled for March 14 at City Hall.
8-year plan considered
Inside, the trustees considered an eight-year spending plan to increase reserves, improve technology and computer systems, shore up retiree health care, and tackle long-deferred maintenance issues – all requirements for remaining accredited.
“We’re required to spend more money,” said board President John Rizzo.
The disagreement at the bargaining table, of course, is also about how the college should spend its money. And it’s unlikely that dispute will be settled by the accreditation deadline, just two weeks away.