Saving City College with competence

I grew up in the General Motors factory town of Saginaw, Mich., raised by a single mom. She cleaned people’s houses by day and started taking night courses at the local community college to get a better job when I was 9.

On her way to class, she dropped me off at the Delta College pool for open swim with other kids in the same situation. Our only supervision was an exasperated lifeguard.

As a teenager, I was a Delta student. The transfer credits helped me afford Michigan State University.

I understand first-hand why community colleges matter, which is why I’ve been a proponent of tough love for the troubled City College of San Francisco. It needs to thrive with skilled leadership and a solid business plan, not just hobble to the next taxpayer rescue.

I was against a parcel tax to save City College in 2012 because the money was going to the same incompetent trustees responsible for its fiscal mess. We should have followed President Barack Obama’s example. He bailed out General Motors only after the leaders who ruined the company resigned.

The organization that accredits California’s community colleges has its own problems for sure. But that doesn’t excuse the City College trustees who let new campus construction costs spiral out of control as thousands of students attended class without paying tuition. Trustees who enabled a disastrous “shared governance” system that led to a gridlock of self-interests between students and faculty. Trustees who chronically missed meetings and even received $11,000 in fines for not filing campaign reports because “the paperwork became too much.”

Thankfully, a special administrator appointed to manage City College through its accreditation crisis replaced those trustees. The worst offenders didn’t run or win when a new crop was elected last fall in anticipation of taking control of the college again.

“Sometimes when you put people together, the sum is worse than the parts, which is the best way to describe the old board of trustees,” said Rafael Mandelman, president of the new board. “We can’t afford to have factions pitted against each other like before. My role is to keep folks working together and focused on saving the college.”

Mandelman serves with me on the Democratic County Central Committee and our local politics couldn’t be further apart — I’m a San Francisco moderate and he’s a left-of-left firebrand. Yet I respect him as a smart and effective lawyer with a good heart who will put City College’s needs over political ideology.

For example, Mandelman only has nice things to say about working with moderate-leaning Alex Randolph, the City College trustee appointed by Mayor Ed Lee who is running to retain his seat this fall.

The stakes are high because Randolph’s challengers from the left are campaigning with the divisive tone of “take City College back.” It’s hard to imagine them embracing fiscal responsibility and making necessary cuts in classes and services, especially with faculty and staff unions endorsing them.

“You can’t run City College on protest and anger,” said Randolph, 32, who previously worked for the Obama administration ensuring government construction projects spent tax dollars wisely. He also served with me on the board of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. “You have to find solutions, make tough budget decisions and govern for long-term sustainability.”

Randolph’s personal story appeals to the many immigrants who rely on City College. Randolph has an African American father, was raised by a single German mother and came to the United States at 16. He is engaged to marry a man born in Vietnam who is an officer in the U.S. Navy.

“Attending community college changed our lives,” Randolph said. “Allowing others to live their American dream through City College is the best job I ever had.”

Let’s just hope trustees like Mandelman and Randolph remain in charge.

Engardio is a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, representing the westside. Follow his blog at Email him at

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