SAN FRANCISCO — The report this month from the accreditation commission was scathing.
It found that City College of San Francisco — at 90,000 students, the largest community college in the state and one of the largest in the nation — was riddled with problems, including paltry financial reserves, a dearth of leadership and a slow-moving style of democratic governance.
The 77-year-old school now must make a case for continuing to exist and craft a closure plan in case the onerous task of reform fails.
The commission's "show cause" order is the gravest step short of withdrawal of accreditation. Currently, two of California's 111 other community colleges — College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College — are similarly threatened. In the last decade, only Compton College saw its accreditation revoked, while three other schools emerged from "show cause" status to thrive again.
But rather than spur hopelessness, the news that landed like a bomb here has rallied passionate support to save what Bouchra Simmons, a Moroccan-born single mother working toward a business certificate, called "the school of possibilities in life."
City officials, labor leaders and hundreds of current and former students, faculty and staff insist that the nine-campus college must emerge from crisis without compromising its values of accessibility and affordability, rare commodities in an era of shrinking public funding.
"We are all craving education, to learn, to progress," said Simmons, the newly elected president of student government at the downtown campus. "This school has to be here for everybody who needs it."
Meanwhile, City College trustees and its interim chancellor have vowed to address the daunting concerns of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
"We are taking responsibility for where we are," Chancellor Pamila Fisher told a special board meeting last week. "We have committed ourselves to doing whatever it takes."
Said Lawrence Wong, a trustee who graduated from the institution and whose 92-year-old mother matriculated two years ago: "There is no way that any of us who have been helped and touched and in some ways ennobled by City College will allow it to close." But, he added, "we are going to have to take a hard look at matching our programs to our resources."
Made up largely of community college administrators, the commission reviews each school every six years.
Its report on City College noted that the school had maintained its mission to provide broad educational access through three years of deficit spending, causing its reserves to dwindle dangerously low. Meanwhile, 92% of its budget had been channeled to salaries and benefits — the state average is 85% — leaving little money to maintain facilities or improve services.
Over the years, the college had reduced its administrative staff positions to 39, relegating many decision-making powers to faculty and staff through a process called "shared governance." Though the process was seen as democratic, the accreditors said that "the lack of self-examination and failure to react [quickly] to ongoing reduced funding has caused the institution to reach a financial breaking point."
The commission noted that City College has also failed to set and measure achievement goals for its courses and other programs, a requirement of accreditation. School officials must complete their "show cause" and closure reports by March 15, but an early report showing "meaningful progress" is due within 100 days.
According to John Rizzo, president of the board of trustees, City College has lost $40 million in state funding over the last four years. And because of shrinking offerings, students were turned away from classes they wanted more than 10,000 times in the 2011-12 academic year.
City College faculty and staff already have begun the reform effort, agreeing to salary cuts, benefit reductions and furlough days. Trustees have voted to increase the school's mandatory reserves and have changed its approach to capital projects, which for years have come in late and over budget.
In addition, the district has placed a proposed parcel tax on San Francisco's November ballot that, if approved, would bring in $14 million annually.
In meetings this week, students and some faculty asserted that as the college changes, it should not compromise on its commitment to keep as many classes open as possible.
"The reason we're [facing loss of accreditation] is not because our mission to serve all students is too big," art student Carmen Melendez, 49, told trustees. "It's because our resources are not enough. I do not understand why we cannot express openly that accessibility and affordability are not negotiable."
Civic leaders also are pressing for the school to maintain its ideals.
A "terrible outcome" of the accreditation report, local Democratic Party activist Rafael Mandelman told a cheering crowd, would be "if they succeeded in convincing us that we should become less San Franciscan."
But, said Barbara Beno, president of the accreditation commission, "when you're running an organization, you have to be sensitive to how you can spend your money to achieve your mission."
Student success, she said, matters more than merely "getting in the door."
California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott said the school would have to make hard choices, including potentially closing some of its sites.
He has offered to meet with the board and said that in addition to funding a state fiscal crisis team now working with City College, his office could soon appoint a "special trustee" with fiscal skills.
"It's a very serious situation," Scott said, adding that he "deplored" the state's cuts of 12% over the last three years to all community colleges.
"But if your income were reduced, you'd probably reduce your expenditures," Scott said. "It's a little bit like everything else — it's why I don't drive a Cadillac."