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Regional Interests

‘My Heart Dropped’: CCSF Students Rally to Protest Cuts That Threaten to Transform College

Classes and jobs are on the chopping block at City College of San Francisco, as nearly 200 faculty and staff members may be laid off pending an upcoming vote of the college’s Board of Trustees slated for Monday.

The school, which faces a $33 million budget shortfall for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year, sent preliminary layoff notices to 163 faculty members and 34 administrators in early March. Monday’s vote by the trustees could begin the process of sending finalized layoff notices.

College administrators have said the cuts are necessary to stave off a state takeover should City College not meet its fiscal responsibilities. In a time of financial uncertainty, they’ve argued publicly, the college must focus its mission on who it can best serve. According to the American Federation of Teachers 2121, the union that represents CCSF faculty, the cuts could also affect hundreds of additional part-time workers, which would bring total layoffs to between 500 and 600 people.

Classes in nearly every subject the school teaches may be affected, from auto repair to astronomy, LGBT studies, photography, aircraft maintenance, health education and more.

The union framed the cuts as a winnowing of the school’s mission to a focus only on university transfer students instead of serving a broader community of older and returning students, or people training for new careers.

“City College is the economic and jobs engine that students of color, low-income, and immigrants need to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the union wrote in an April 29 open letter to CCSF trustees. “Yet the District plans to rob over 30,000 students every semester of the educational opportunities they need.”

An emergency bargaining session between the union and CCSF is scheduled for Saturday.

At a “Fight Back for CCSF” rally Thursday evening in San Francisco, which was organized as an AAPI and Black solidarity action by the student-led CCSF Collective, speakers demanded CCSF trustees cancel planned layoffs. They also turned the spotlight on the harm that class cuts may have on the city’s immigrant communities in a time of rising anti-Asian hate, from Cantonese courses that train workers who help the city’s Chinese community to some English as a Second Language classes considered crucial for new immigrants.

Julia Quon, who organized a Save Cantonese at CCSF group with her fellow classmates, speaks at a Fight for City College rally outside of Mission High School in San Francisco on May 6, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“When I heard that the Cantonese program was going to be defunded permanently, my heart dropped,” said Julia Quon, a doula and birth worker who was raised in the Sunset District, at Thursday’s rally. “These Cantonese classes were not only a way for me to connect with my heritage, but also to connect with the families that I work with.”

Quon, who started a “Save Cantonese at CCSF” group with a group of her classmates, told KQED earlier this week that it shocked her to learn City College may no longer offer Cantonese — especially in light of ongoing attacks against Asians.

“Cantonese classes are necessary in fighting anti-Asian hate because this language is spoken by so many residents in San Francisco,” she said. “If people are able to communicate with these victims and survivors in their own language, it helps give people a voice. Imagine being attacked, and going to the authorities, and every single person there has no idea what you’re saying.”

Uncle Damien Posey, founder of Us 4 Us Bay Area, speaks during a Fight for City College rally outside of Mission High School in San Francisco on May 6, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Uncle Damien Posey, community organizer and founder of Us 4 Us Bay Area, discussed his own personal history as someone who was formerly incarcerated, and described CCSF as being there for him when he needed it most.

“When I came home from doing 10 years, you know who was there for me? City College,” Posey said at Thursday’s rally. “City College was there for me … Access to education is absolutely the last thing that should be cut.”

The class cuts at CCSF are designed to bring the college in line with a state funding scheme called the “Student-Centered Funding Formula” first implemented in 2019 that prioritizes funding not only by enrollment, as was the case previously, but also calculations including “student success” as measured by certificates, associate degrees or students transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

CCSF was given a reprieve from mandates to meet that formula until 2023 — but the college is now tasked with streamlining classes to ready itself for that date.

“The state sees the school as a school that should not have more than 100 full-time faculty, but the school has 555 full-time faculty,”  Dr. Rajen Vurdien, interim chancellor of CCSF, said in a Zoom town hall meeting in March, which AFT 2121 tweeted in a video. “I have had multiple conversations with the state chancellor, with the department of the treasury, they’ve all said exactly the same thing: City College will learn to live within its means.”

Left out in that restructuring, opponents argue, are those who explore City College’s vast offering of courses, trying to figure out their future careers by sampling a bit of this, and a bit of that, college faculty argue. Noncredit courses that focus on workforce training, which the state’s community college system does not broadly offer to the same degree as City College, also face cuts.

A demonstrator holds a sign that says, ‘Fight for City College’ during a rally outside Mission High School in San Francisco on May 6, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

These changes are similar to ones that accreditors wanted CCSF to make when they threatened the school with closure in 2012, a threat that very nearly toppled the institution. The City Attorney’s Office successfully won against those accreditors in court in 2014, ensuring the college’s survival.

Since then, however, circumstances may have led the college to commit those same cuts itself.

The college has also faced declining enrollment, said Rosie Zepeda, a City College spokesperson. Its population peaked around 2009 at 100,000 students, but a subsequent threat to the college’s accreditation, demographic changes in San Francisco itself and, finally, the pandemic, led to a decline in enrollment by tens of thousands, Zepeda said.

One of the shrinking groups is the number of San Franciscans who said, in the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey, that they speak English “less than very well,” according to a report by the college in November last year.

“We’ve been operating with an overblown schedule which eventually led to over-expenditures in faculty salaries,” Zepeda said. “And so given the number of students that we have now, which has been going down so drastically, so greatly impacted by the pandemic … We have to operate within that headcount.”

The college has tried the “build it and they will come” approach, Zepeda said, after San Francisco began offering Free City College. They offered robust classes, but students just weren’t taking them.

“That didn’t come to fruition at all,” she said. And now the college may shrink.

But the proposed layoffs could reduce the number of ethnic studies and ESL classes being offered.

A demonstrator holds a ‘Fight for City College’ sign during a rally outside Mission High School in San Francisco on May 6, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Faculty like Dr. Lily Ann Villaraza, who is among those who received layoff notices in March, are worried about the long-term impact on certain departments. She chairs the Philippine Studies Department, whose classes, she says, offer more than academic support.

“It’s the conversations that we have students who are struggling with their identities, who are trying to find their space,” she said during a May 3 news conference organized by AFT 2121. “I get the privilege of hearing students tell me, you know what, I feel better about who I am and where I’m going.”

That sentiment was borne out at Thursday’s rally.

“As a Filipino American student at CCSF, the Philippine Studies department has given me an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with my Filipino roots… And has given me more reason and purpose to serve my community,” said Joemar Olit, CCSF student and member of Anakbayan SF, a student organization for democracy in the Philippines.

“As a Filipino who was born in America, I did not know much about my Filipino background. Taking the classes offered by the Philippine Studies department has given me a better understanding of who I am. As a Filipino. As a Filipino American.”

Among other concerns is the future of ESL classes, which typically serve as a lifeline for many folks who are starting a new life in the U.S.

“The ESL program is critical for immigrants who need our support acquiring language skills,” said Fanny Law, an ESL instructor who also received a layoff notice in March, during the May 3 news conference.

Maria Rivera benefited from that program. An immigrant from El Salvador, she said taking English courses at City College’s Mission campus launched her path in higher education.

“All the departments that helped me a lot — ESL, Transitional Studies and Latino Services — they were key to my success,” she said during the May 3 news conference. “ESL classes are important because immigrants, we need to speak the language of the city to be able to give back.”

Rivera said City College staff guided her as she worked to earn her high school degree and complete the requirements to transfer to a four-year institution. She’s now studying math at UC Berkeley to become a math teacher.

“The city needs to fund these classes,” Rivera said, urging city officials and City College trustees against making the proposed cuts. “If you educate parents and the community, the future generations are gonna be educated, and that’s where the future of the city is.”

Copyright 2021 KQED