By Charla Bear
It's tough for Teresa Villicana, a student at the City College of San Francisco, to focus on her studies right now. She's got a more pressing concern.
"If they close, where are we going to be?" she asks.
Closure is a real possibility for CCSF. It's facing a deadline Friday to prove to an accreditation agency how it plans to address a long list of financial and administrative concerns. If the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges pulls CCSF's credentials, the state would follow suit by withdrawing funding. And City College is not alone: Its financial difficulties reflect the the growing struggle that many California colleges face.
The troubles at City College, which serves more than 80,000 students, have sparked a local campaign to save the school. Thursday, about 500 students, teachers and community members marched to City Hall demanding support from local lawmakers.
City College ESL teacher Elizabeth Silver says these are trying times.
"It has been discouraging lately," Silver says. "I think City College is going to change somehow, we're not going to have the same kind of school. That's what is scary to us as faculty."
The Save CCSF Coalition joined the march to call on the city to fill budget gaps and reinstate cut classes and programs using Proposition A funds. Prop. A is the parcel tax measure to financially support City College that was passed by local voters last November.
The college has had to make significant changes in the seven months since the accreditation agency put it on notice. The commission cited the college for poor financial management, run down facilities and an inability to gauge student performance.
"We have an institution that has grown to unsustainable levels." - City College spokesman Larry Kamer
"CCSF has been around since 1935. This is the most seismic event we've ever gone through," City College spokesman Larry Kamer said.
Kamer says he's "cautiously optimistic" the accreditor's decision will be positive when it comes down this summer. But he adds there's still a lot of hard work to do.
"You can't get around our fiscal challenge," Kamer said. "We have an institution that has grown to unsustainable levels."
The college hasn't been able to resolve one of the commission's biggest concerns—that roughly 92 percent of its budget goes to salaries, benefits and retirement, leaving only 8 percent for all remaining operations and site maintenance.
The college's board of trustees approved a $187 million 2012-13 budget. About $97 million of that total comes from the state.
Not Just a City College Problem
CCSF is not the only community college in the state in danger of shutting down. Accreditors recently hit College of the Sequoias in the San Joaquin Valley with the same sanction. Nearly 20 other colleges are also on some level of notice.
"It's a big concern of ours," says Paul Feist, spokesman for the California Community College Chancellor's Office. "We would like to see fewer colleges placed on sanctions by the accrediting commission. There is no easy answer here. It is a challenge for a significant number of colleges."
He says colleges could be struggling because the federal government has put more pressure on accreditors to hold schools accountable to their standards. Feist says the recession has added to the pain.
"We lost 500,000 students in the past 4 years because of budget cuts," Feist says. "So, if a college was deficient in one area or another before the recession, that may have exposed those problems."
Most colleges have typically been able to fix their issues in time to avoid closure. Only Compton Community College was shut down, but it was quickly absorbed by a nearby school.
The size of City College of San Francisco makes that an unlikely option. It's not an option most students, faculty and administrators seem willing to accept, either.
What's Next for City College?
A team of accreditation inspectors will visit City College and conduct interviews in April.
Based upon a review of the college, the accreditation commission will make a decision on the fate of City College in June or July.