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CCSF reimbursed $2.7M for Free City tuition program after months of delays

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Catalogs for City College of San Francisco highlight the Free City program, which provides free tuition for students who live in The City. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

After several months of negotiations, city officials this week made the first payment to City College of San Francisco for the Free City program, which has provided free tuition to city residents since last Fall.

The payment of $2,756,354 was approved Monday, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, which allocates funds for the program.

CCSF spokesperson Leslie Milloy said that the college received the funds “almost immediately” and began conversations around allocating them within the college on Tuesday.

The payment comes after multiple attempts by the college to bill The City for the program were met with disagreements over the dollar amount and whether or not the college was complying with the terms under which the program and funding would be administered.

City College officials, who said they needed to get reimbursement by the end of the fiscal year on June 31, submitted the first invoice in December and the most recent on April 4. In February, an invoice for $4.1 million was rejected by The City, which requested that the college provide additional enrollment data.

The memorandum of understanding between the city and the college established Free City as a “last dollar” program, meaning that the college was supposed to exhaust all other funding sources for covering students’ tuition, such as state financial aid waivers, before dipping into the City funds.

However the college appeared to violate this agreement when Chancellor Mark Rocha last Fall exempted students from enrolling in an online financial aid process out of concern that the college’s system could not keep up with a significant boost in enrollment — up some 11 percent from Fall 2016.

The college’s leadership has since committed to improving its financial aid intake systems.

Supervisor Jane Kim, who is a mayoral candidate in the June election, spearheaded the effort to fund the Free City program as well as negotiations around the agreement with then-Mayor Ed Lee.

On Thursday, Kim said that she is “much happier now that [the college] is paid,” adding that it was a “learning process for both sides.”

Not all of the issues around the program have been ironed out. Earlier this month, Rocha asked the City to also pay for the upcoming summer semester, but was denied.

The current agreement with The City did not set aside funds for the summer, meaning those in the process of enrolling are poised to pay for tuition out of pocket.

Kim said that she would continue advocating for the free tuition program to cover this summer, adding that she had a conversation with Mayor Mark Farrell last week and will submit a proposal for his consideration, but “no comments or promises” have been made.

“[The MOU] was pre-Mayor Mark Farrell,” said Kim. “[Ed Lee] Did not commit to funding in the summer….[and] it’s clearly laid out in the MOU that summer is not included. But I was hoping, after seeing the results, that we can at least have a conversation.”

An oversight committee that includes city and college representatives was formed to guide the program’s administration and will hold its first official meeting tomorrow. That meeting will focus on “onboarding,” according to Hydra Mendoza McDonell, Deputy Chief of Staff on Education and Equity in the Mayor’s Office.

“Not everyone who is sitting on the committee is familiar with the MOU and how invoicing is set up, and the things we are asking for,” and Mendoza McDonell, adding that “it will be important that everybody knows what’s in it, what’ agreed to, before they can start asking for other things.”

Whether or not tweaks are required to the current program is an ongoing conversation, according to Mendoza McDonnell. She said that summer funding will not be discussed at tomorrow’s meeting but “could come up as an agenda item in the future,” should the oversight committee agendize it.

Funding for the Free City program was secured through the passage of a 2016 ballot measure that raised the transfer tax on properties sold for more than $5 million. Some $11.2 million of the revenues generated were set aside to pay for a two-year Free City pilot.

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