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City College calls last-minute meeting to discuss Free City charter amendment

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(Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

The City College of San Francisco board has called for a hastily-arranged 7:30 a.m. special meeting Thursday to discuss a proposed ballot measure that would secure the future of the Free City program.

The trustees hope to weigh-in on the proposed charter amendment before the Board of Supervisors vote to place it on the November ballot. If passed by voters, the amendment would ensure subsidized tuition at City College continues for at least another 10 years after the current two-year pilot program expires in June.

Before that happens, however, some board members hope to see the terms of the program changed.

While it currently is defined as a “last dollar” program — meaning that for residents to be eligible to receive free tuition from The City, they must first apply for other grants and financial aid — Board President Brigitte Davila said the funding should be available regardless of whether students seek or qualify for other assistance.

“A first dollar program would not only make sure everyone has free tuition, but it would be more equitable, and the poorer students would be able to get more,” Davila said. “We need people to understand it needs to be a first dollar program if we mean to meet the spirit of Prop. W — and Prop. W promised Free City College.”

Passed in 2016, Proposition W increased the real estate transfer tax on properties sold for more than $5 million. Proponents told voters the funds would be used to create a Free City program, although revenue from the tax increase is not earmarked and goes into The City’s General Fund. The City Controller’s Office said Prop. W raised $30.3 million last fiscal year.

Chancellor Mark Rocha wrote Mayor London Breed a letter Tuesday in which he said the current program is not adequately serving the needs of students.

“The current program design is flawed and unsustainable,” he wrote, and said the college recommended changing the program to an “entitlement program for San Francisco residents.”

Trustee John Rizzo said City College should not be on the hook to subsidize the cost of Free City. The current agreement with The City allocates $5.4 million each year for the program, but invoices from City College to San Francisco show costs have far exceeded that amount.

“It’s been subsidized by the students — by having their classes cancelled,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think that’s fair. I want there to be a guarantee that the city will pick this up.”

Supervisor Jane Kim’s proposed charter amendment would set aside $15 million for Free City starting in fiscal year 2020-2021.

“It’s been a difficult situation with supposedly-Free City and with the college wasting a lot of time and effort on this,” Davila said. “It was a pilot program, so it’s good we were able to work out the bugs and we know what we need to do to make it more equitable.”

Davila said she didn’t know if there was political will on the Board of Supervisors to modify the proposed charter amendment to be a first dollar program, but the revenue from Prop. W is there for it.

“Politicians being politicians, everyone wants to grab at that pie. But it was really the promise of Free City that passed Prop. W,” she said.

She said the supervisors haven’t heard the Board of Trustees’ views because they haven’t voted on a resolution.

“Things have been moving very fast,” she said. “We haven’t issued a resolution, so we need to do it right now, because it’s all coming down the line right now.”

The meeting was announced around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, roughly 25 hours ahead of time. The Brown Act — the California law which regulates public meetings in the state — requires regular meetings to be announced 72 hours in advance but allows for “special meetings” announced only 24 hours in advance.

“Given that many of us work, when you’re in this kind of a time frame, it was (either) an early morning or midnight kind of thing,” said Trustee Thea Selby. “Hopefully we will have a quorum and be able to look at this stuff.”

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