Alix Rosenthal, third from right, cast the deciding vote to endorse Rodrigo Santos for City College Board
Alix Rosenthal, third from right, cast the deciding vote to endorse Rodrigo Santos for City College Board

By Tim Redmond

Now that the lawsuit against the City College accreditors is moving forward, and the college is entering a new accreditation process, and pretty much everyone with any sense knows the ACCJC has lost all political credibility, it’s easy to think that the school’s future is, if not safe, then at least hopeful.

But there’s another threat out there, one that hasn’t received much news media coverage at all.

City College could still be forced to downsize, change its mission, eliminate classes and close campuses – not because the ACCJC says so but because people who agree with the accreditor get elected to the college board this fall.

And if that happens, the San Francisco Democratic Party will be partly to blame.

The Community College Board race this fall is more than low-profile; for most San Franciscans, it hardly exists. The board doesn’t even meet these days; why would anyone run for, or work to support a candidate for, a job that has no formal power?

The school is still under the control of a special trustee who has full authority to make all decisions. The board members can speak out on issues, and some of them do, but their official role in college governance is fairly minimal.

But the role of the special trustee will eventually end, and at some point, probably within a year or two, the board will get back to the business of running the school. And even after the accreditation crisis is over, there will be major, serious challenges getting City College back on track.

If the people elected to the board this fall aren’t completely solid and totally committed to protecting the City College mission as a diverse school open to the entire community, there will be immense pressure to do what the ACCJC and its supporters clearly want: Turn City College into a much-smaller, traditional junior college focused entirely on preparing students to transfer to four-year institutions.

City College owns a lot of property, and has campuses, and offers classes, all over the city. That’s a huge benefit to people in Chinatown, the Mission, the Western Addition and Bayview. Having a downtown campus helps people with jobs in the Financial District who want to take classes after work.

But there will be a push, as money gets tight again, to sell or close some of those facilities.

The administration is already cutting classes, which the Teacher’s Union, AFT Local 2121, thinks is crazy: Why, when the state has given the school extra money and the biggest challenge is keeping enrollment up, would you cancel classes that attract students?

You think that pressure’s going to end when the ACCJC goes back into whatever nasty little hole it crawled out of?

No: the future of City College will still be up in the air for years.

The teachers’ union has endorsed four candidates who the teachers think will try to save the school: Wendy Aragon, Bridgitte Davila, Anita Grier, and Thea Selby. Grier’s the only incumbent on the list.

John Rizzo, the incumbent board president, has had the teachers’ support in the past, but for better or for worse, he was the person in charge when this crisis happened, and he’s suffering from that in the endorsement world (although he has the Sierra Club, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and Sup. David Campos). Rizzo’s not going to go along with a major downsizing of the school.

So who did the Democratic County Central Committee, representing the Democratic Party of San Francisco, endorse, along with Grier and Selby (who everyone seems to like)? Rodrigo Santos and Amy Bacharach.

I spoke with Bacharach, who has a compelling life story (high school dropout to PhD) and came close to winning a seat two years ago. She’s running for the two-year seat created by the vacancy when Chris Jackson resigned in protest. (Just for the record, Bacharach is a David Chiu supporter). I like Bacharach and the Bay Guardian endorsed her when I was the editor there. Still, in our conversation, and in her written statements, Bacharach focuses on doing what the ACCJC wants; she told the Democrats she supports “available, accessible, and affordable education for our community while also ensuring adherence to the accrediting agency’s standards.”

I have had this discussion with many board members, and I think Rafael Mandelman got it right: He told me that when he first joined the board, he tried – really, really tried – to do everything the ACCJC wanted. He was reasonable, tried to bring the board together to work in a unified way to respond to the crisis … and it didn’t matter. The accreditors were out to get City College, and all the compromise and civility got the school nowhere.

The board should have come out fighting from the start, he told me.

Maybe if Bacharach gets elected, she’ll be fine. Santos will not.

The ally of Mayor Lee was already appointed to a seat on the board – and rejected by the voters at the next election, despite spending an enormous amount of money to win. He didn’t support additional funding for the school; he’s a fiscal conservative who would be all about cutting and shrinking the institution.

He didn’t even submit a questionnaire to the Democratic Party. So how did he get endorsed?

Well, I was at that hot, long meeting, and since the DCCC uses ranked-choice voting to pick candidates, the process can go on and on. Selby and Grier were clearly going to get the votes, and Bacharach snuck in – but Santos didn’t have enough support to make the cut.

Then at the last minute, Alix Rosenthal, the political action chair of the party, changed her vote and went with Santos – giving him what he needed to get over the top.

I called Rosenthal and asked her why she changed her vote and went out of the way to support a candidate who had no standing in the Democratic Party, was rejected by the voters, and had all the wrong ideas about City College. She told me she didn’t want to comment.

But in a low-profile election for Community College Board, the Democratic Party endorsement carries a lot of weight. It’s not as if the board is dominated by strong progressives. Giving Santos a good chance for a seat is, former Party Chair Aaron Peskin told me, “the height of irresponsibility.”

If City College gets out of receivership and Santos gets on the board and pushes us right back, the Democratic Party will be responsible,” he said.

This race matters. Don’t ignore it when you vote.

Full disclosure note: While I try to raise enough money for 48hills to actually pay myself a living wage, I’m taking on outside work. I am a guest lecturer at City College, teach at San Francisco’s State’s Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning, and recently did a class at USF. (I am not a member of AFT Local 2121; I am a member of CWA through the Northern California Media Workers Guild) I have been paid the princely sum of $50 to speak at a friend’s journalism classes at the Academy of Art University.

As a freelancer, I am helping edit the member newsletter of SEIU Local 1021. I am also on the board of Legal Assistance to the Elderly and am volunteering to help the Bernal Heights Neighborhood center restart its bimonthly newspaper, The New Bernal Journal.

I will continue to update any future conflicts in the unlikely event that anyone else out there offers to pay me for anything.