Dan Walters

Dan Walters: San Francisco seeks special treatment for embattled college

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

For several years, those who run California’s 100-plus community colleges have complained that the commission that makes all-important accreditation evaluations has been excessively aggressive, even nit-picking.

There have even been off-the-record complaints that evaluators for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, an offshoot of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, were settling personal scores from their own days as community college faculty and administrators.

The complaints arose as the commission issued highly critical reports on district after district, and as local college officials, worried about the immense financial consequences of losing accreditation but also dealing with cutbacks in state support, scrambled to respond.

The backstage war of words became public two years ago when the commission laid a heavy number on the City College of San Francisco, threatening to end its accreditation without major financial and operational reforms.

The commission had issued harsh reports on other colleges, but this was San Francisco, which has a particularly high level of civic hubris and wields a disproportionately high level of political clout in Sacramento and Washington.

The reaction among the city’s political and educational figures has ranged from dismissive to defensive. Unions have been especially incensed at suggestions that spending 92 percent of the college’s budget on salaries was excessive.

Lawsuits were filed against the commission, politicians threatened its existence (it needs federal approval itself to operate) and college officials, under prodding from the statewide community college board and chancellor, reluctantly agreed to have an overseer appointed.

Two years later, the situation remains unsettled.

Lawsuits have blocked the commission from imposing its punishment, but the college is seeing a sharp enrollment decline because of its uncertain accreditation. That means a multimillion-dollar drop in state support, even though California’s community colleges generally are seeing improved finances.

Early this month, the accreditation commission refused to retract its criticism, but the college said it would formally seek a new evaluation on its assertion that it has undergone a fundamental change.

A few days later, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, introduced a bill that would give the college an extra injection of state aid – in effect ignoring its enrollment drop – at the request of new Chancellor Art Tyler, who said it would “avoid the death spiral.”

Not for the first time, therefore, the Legislature is being asked to do something for San Francisco – our richest big city – that it’s not doing for others in the state.

It’s another test of its unusual political clout.