Students walk through the Cloud Hill courtyard at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus on May 10, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Funding deal secures future for Free City program

The City College of San Francisco board on Thursday is expected to vote on a deal to secure funding for its “Free City” program over the next decade.

With the two-year Free City pilot set to expire in July, college and city leaders have been embroiled in negotiations over continued funding for the program, which offers free tuition to San Francisco residents. The program aims to boost enrollment, which plunged steeply after the college nearly lost its accreditation in 2012.

If approved, the tentative agreement would fund the program over a 10-year period starting with $15 million in the first year. It would create a new memorandum of understanding guiding the Free City program that would replace a charter amendment proposed by former supervisor Jane Kim late last year.

The charter amendment would have required The City to spend $15 million annually on the program through an ongoing budget set-aside that would have locked in funding for ten years.

By contrast, the deal would fund the program through the regular budget process, giving city leaders the authority to make modifications, including reducing the program’s funding.

But City College Chancellor Mark Rocha told the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday that the agreement reached is ultimately more beneficial to the college.

The charter amendment is contingent on the November election, and wouldn’t take effect until the following year, while funding the program through the budget process would free up the money in time for the upcoming school year, according to Rocha.

The new agreement also removes a provision that previously required students to apply for financial aid first, before allowing them to register for free tuition under the Free City program.

While the requirement saved money for The City, the extra step deterred many students from taking advantage of the program, said Rocha.

“Under the old MOU, Free City would only pay if students couldn’t get financial aid from another source,” said Rocha. “The difficulty is that our students are largely part-time and low-income, they enroll late. A lot of students are qualified for financial aid but they don’t get it because they don’t apply.”

According to the tentative agreement, the college is directed to “encourage” students to register for financial aid, but registration is not a requirement for Free City eligibility.

“We want Free City to be as open as possible and want people to use it easily, without having to fill out a 17 -page financial aid form — especially for people who are new to school,” said Jennifer Worley, president of City College’s faculty union, AFT 2121. “We have gotten to a new place with that [with this agreement].”

The agreement calls for a $15 million allocation in the next fiscal year, $15.7 million in the next year and $16.4 million in the year after. It also provides City College with an additional $5.4 million one-time payment to recover costs it had to shoulder due to initial underfunding of the program.

Rocha said that he does not see a scenario in which “the program would be reduced or altered.”

“I think the [agreement] is iron clad. It’s a clear written agreement between The City and the college,” Rocha said, adding that he is not concerned about future funding gaps.

Supervisor Gordon Mar in April introduced a motion to withdraw the proposed charter amendment form the November ballot. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the motion on July 8.

This week, Mayor London Breed introduced a resolution authorizing The City’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families to enter into a new MOU with City College, and Mar introduced an ordinance aimed at advancing the finalized MOU before the start of the fall semester.

Mar’s ordinance modifies the San Francisco City College Financial Assistance

Fund, which governs the distribution of the Free City funds, to ensure that the funding is used in a manner consistent with the new agreement, among other things.

“Free City was a pilot for the first two years — it was something very new and different . There’s been a lot of learning about the best way to implement and administer it,” said Mar. “I think having an annual independent audit is …one exapmle that will be an important provision to ensure the program continues.”

Budget vote

The board is also set to vote Thursday on a $166 million tentative budget and a $845 million facilities bond that the college’s administration plans to place before voters in March 2020.

The college’s budget has been a point of contention, with a projected deficit ballooning to $31 million this year.

Balancing the budget has come at a cost, admitted Rocha. Class reductions and department consolidations planned for next semester elicited an outcry from students and instructors, and the college effectively reduced the number of full-time instructors through retirement incentives.

“In 2016-2017, the college spent $50 million more than it took in. The budget we submit tomorrow is balanced, and it includes a $2.4 million surplus,” said Rocha. “That’s a great achievement.”

The proposed facilities bond has received nearly 80 percent approval ratings in a preliminary poll, and was originally contemplated for the November 2019 ballot. However Rocha said that the March 2020 election is expected to “be a greater turnout election” due to the presidential primary, and added that the college needs more time to ramp up campaign efforts and finish project designs.

The bond would pay for a number of priority projects, including a new student development center, a child care center, repairs at Evans Campus in the Bayview District and a modified version of a long-planned Performing Arts and Education Center.

“We have been working on actual design on those projects. So when we do go to the ballot in March, we can say, ‘these projects are shovel ready,’” said Rocha, adding that construction on some projects could begin as early as summer of 2020, should voters approve the bond measure.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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