In early July, more than 300 people packed a San Francisco meeting hall to express their outrage over a letter from the Accrediting Commission for Community & Junior Colleges saying City College of San Francisco must prove its fiscal stability by March 15 to remain accredited.

The college received the commission’s most severe sanction, “show cause.” Without accreditation, which allows schools to award diplomas and receive federal aid, the college could close. The report seems to fault City College for doing too much for students during bad economic times.

The school’s importance to San Francisco makes the threat of closure particularly shocking, says Carl Friedlander, president of the CFT Community College Council. With 90,000 students on nine campuses, it is the city’s largest provider of ESL classes, and workforce training programs.

Friedlander questioned the commission’s focus on finances rather than programs. “I think they’re too intrusive in these fiscal areas,” he said. “This commission gets into things that other commissions around the country don’t involve themselves in.” He says the commission has minimal oversight and isn’t subject to many of the transparency laws governing public agencies.

Far more California colleges have gotten warnings and been placed on probation than in the five other accrediting commission regions in the country. Cuesta College and College of the Redwoods also face losing accreditation.

“We have three colleges in California on ‘show cause’ and 20 more on probation,” Friedlander said, “In the rest of the country, there are no colleges on ‘show cause’ and only four on probation.”

CCSF Board Trustee Chris Jackson says that the report ignores lost state funding. “Over the last three years, we’ve lost $53 million, and there’s no acknowledgement of that,” he said.

Both the San Francisco Community College Federation of Teachers, Local 2121, and SEIU Local 1021, the staff union, have been working to pass a temporary $79 parcel tax to raise desperately needed revenue for the college.

“Right now, it’s about finances and the parcel tax,” said Alisa Messer, president of Local 2121, who worked with SEIU, students, elected officials and community members to organize the July meeting. “We’re working to grow a coalition of students and staff and the community because we know that any response to save the college has to include everyone.”

Shanell Williams, president of the Ocean Campus Associated Students Council, has been working on the parcel tax campaign. “It’s imperative that the state reassess how much the schools need,” she said. Williams, who came to CCSF from the foster care system, is an Urban Studies major who plans to transfer to a four-year university. “The open access for people who have struggled,” she says, “is so critical for working class people.”

Compounding the crisis, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team released a report in mid-September detailing how the college should balance its budget. The report recommends anything above the norm, such as the number of full-time staff, part-timer benefits and part-time wages, should be cut.

“The FCMAT report vastly overstates the impact of AFT members’ salaries and benefits on the district’s financial situation,” Messer told the Board of Trustees on September 18.

Friedlander has no doubt the leadership at CCSF will focus on making sure the college stays accredited and open.

“When you have a sanction, you’ve got to set aside concerns about the severity of it, or whether it’s unjustified, and focus on fixing the problems the commission sees,” he said. “The commission has been out of whack in terms of the number and severity of its sanctions, but that’s not going to change in the next year. City College of San Francisco must endure.”

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter