Supervisor Jane Kim speaks at a rally to support funding the Free City College program before the Board of Supervisors votes on a City Charter amendment to fund the Free City College pilot project for 10 years on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Voters to decide on Free City College funding in November

Voters will decide in November whether San Francisco should continue to pay the tuition of City College students along with related expenses like books for the next decade.

The Board of Supervisors voted 7-1 Tuesday to place on the ballot a charter amendment introduced by Supervisor Jane Kim that would require The City spend $15 million a year on the Free City College program.

The program, which subsidizes tuition, began last year as a two-year pilot that will end in August 2019. The measure would ensure it continues for at least the next 10 years.

The vote came during a special meeting called by Kim with the support of five of her colleagues to allow her vote to place the measure on the ballot before she is termed out of office on Jan. 8. Kim led the initial Free City effort beginning three years ago with the backing of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 and the San Francisco Labor Council.

Kim said that the idea was inspired by Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talking about the need for free college education.

The program is meant to “create more equity here in San Francisco,” she said, noting that “one of great equalizers in our country has always been education.”

The average job available for a City College graduate pays $11,000 more than for the same individual with only a high school diploma, Kim added.

Supervisor Vallie Brown said that “we have to make sure we never close a door for education for everyone.”

Supervisors Malia Cohen, Katy Tang and Aaron Peskin were excused from the meeting. Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted against the measure.

“I’m definitely for Free City College. I don’t think there should be any economic barriers to people receiving their education, but I am definitely against set-asides,” Stefani told a group of reporters after the vote. “I don’t think that the way we have gone about this has been very fiscally responsible and it is one of the reasons why I voted against it.”

Conny Ford, vice president of the San Francisco Labor Council, previously defended the set-aside, noting that it would be “the third-smallest in the city, and the length of our set-aside of 10 years is the shortest in the city.”

Supporters argue that the set-aside is funded through Proposition W, a tax on the sales of properties valued at $5 million or more annually that last year generated $30 million. Kim placed Prop. W on the ballot in 2016 with the understanding the revenue would fund the program. But when the The City and City College negotiated an agreement the full cost of the program was not covered. Kim estimated that in the first year, City College had to pay $3 million to cover the program since The City only provided $6.4 million in funding.

Mayor London Breed told the San Francisco Examiner before the vote that she had yet to take a position on the measure. “I haven’t formed an opinion about the legislation,” Breed said. “In general, I support Free City College. I want to make sure that we do it in the right way.”

If approved by voters in November, it wouldn’t go into effect until the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020. Funding would begin at $15 million in fiscal year 2020-21 and increase each year.

In the meantime, the school and The City would need to adopt another funding agreement when the current one expires. Kim said that the agreement would need to be reached some time in March for the school and students to plan ahead.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who previously served as president of the City College board of trustees, said negotiations over the funding for the program have been challenging.

“I wish from the bottom of my heart that this charter amendment were not necessary,” Mandelman said. “But I know from having been on the City College side of these negotiation over these last couple of years that our enthusiasm and the voters enthusiasm for free City College is not necessarily shared by everyone.”

“City College needs certainty around this program,” he said.

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