As dozens of students and other protesters surrounded them and shouted for their heads, City College of San Francisco trustees voted Tuesday night to invite a special trustee from the state to oversee finances at the troubled school.
City College, with 86,000 students the largest public school in the state, is struggling to remain open and accredited.
"Resign! Resign!" the students yelled as they briefly shut the meeting down, scuffling with police and demanding that the trustees refuse to bring in a special trustee, which had been strongly recommended by state community college leaders to help the school through its survival process. If the trustees hadn't voluntarily requested such a person, the state chancellor's office warned that it would have imposed one, and the elected trustees would have lost their decision-making power.
But the opponents who filled the auditorium at the college's new Chinatown campus said the trustees should reject all austerity measures, including the special trustee, who probably would want to shrink the college and close at least some of its nine expensive campuses.
"We want our college to remain democratic!" Shanell Williams, president of the Associated Students of City College, told the board emphatically. "If they can do this to us, they can do it across America!"
6-1 vote for special trustee
The trustees eventually voted 6-1 to bring in the special trustee. Opposing the resolution was Chris Jackson, who earlier had called such a move appropriate, though he urged fellow board members never to cede power to such a person. But after the students, outside protesters and at least one parent spoke out, Jackson voted no.
Deciding whether to request a special trustee is just one of many actions City College trustees must take in the next several months as they try to prove to the regional Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that CCSF should be allowed to stay in business. The commission has given the college until March 15 to fix its major governance and fiscal problems. The college must also prepare a "closure report" by then.
Tuesday's decision was closely watched by the state community college system's chancellor, Jack Scott, who that morning delivered a blunt presentation about City College to the college system's Board of Governors meeting in San Diego. He warned that "all hell will break loose" if college leaders are so influenced by opponents of austerity measures that they fail to take the necessary steps to ward off closure.
"I applaud the board of trustees for taking this important step in asking for a special trustee to help in the recovery process," Scott said in a statement after the vote. "It's critical that San Francisco City College retain accreditation, and the state chancellor's office will continue to assist in any way possible. Many more difficult decisions will need to be made, but tonight's vote is a big step in the right direction."
The trustees, under pressure from opponents, had already postponed the vote once.
Like belligerent drunks
Scott, who retires Friday, likened the naysayers to belligerent drunks.
"It's like when you go to an alcoholic and say, 'You have a problem,' and they said, 'I don't have a problem.' They have a difficult time accepting the diagnosis," the state chancellor told the Board of Governors in his genteel drawl.
He also said he has seen a preview of a study of the college's finances to be released Tuesday by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which his office paid for to help guide the college.
"I'm not at liberty to reveal the contents, but I will have to be honest and say it is fairly negative," Scott told the Board of Governors. "City College has done some wonderful things, but they have significant deficiencies that could actually lead to bankruptcy."
A second, unexpected fiscal assessment will also be released by the accrediting commission in the next few days, The Chronicle has learned.
Following that, on Sept. 27, City College's interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher will present a preliminary plan of action, the result of groups working to address the 14 major deficiencies cited by the accrediting commission when it dropped its bomb on the college in July.
Oct. 15 is the deadline for the plan to be sent to the accrediting commission - two weeks before Fisher quits. She was hired May 1 to replace Chancellor Don Griffin, who retired to battle a brain tumor. The college has abandoned its search for a permanent chancellor and is seeking a new interim replacement.
In his presentation to the Board of Governors, Scott described those details and a recent audit by the California State Teachers' Retirement System citing irregularities in how the college has handled executive pensions. The pension agency is seeking to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars from the college.
"They must feel like Job, visited with all kinds of afflictions," Scott said. "It's a perfect storm."
Job, of course, triumphs mightily in the end.
The Board of Governors said it planned to closely monitor the situation at City College, and it will hold a special meeting in early October to hear personally from Fisher and board President John Rizzo.
Rizzo, meanwhile, said the fears of Scott and the Board of Governors are overblown about whether college leaders have the chutzpah to make tough decisions.
"They just don't know San Francisco," he said. "We're used to all kinds of people having disagreements here."