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Discontent with City College propelled 3 challengers to victory and its tax measure to defeat

(L-R) City College of San Francisco Board of Trustee candidates Vick Chung, Adolfo Velasquez, Susan Solomon and Anita Martinez speak to supporters at El Rio on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. | Ida Mojadad/The Standard

In one clean sweep, three labor-backed challengers who promised to restore classes are poised to oust incumbents on the City College of San Francisco board. 

Angered by layoffs enacted in May, former faculty union leader Anita Martinez, former San Francisco Unified School District teachers’ union leader Susan Solomon, and former City College student trustee Vick Chung ran as a unified slate—and to immense success, according to preliminary returns from Tuesday’s election. 

Board of Trustees incumbents John Rizzo, Brigitte Davila and Thea Selby are headed toward a defeat, according to the latest election results released Thursday. 

At the same time, a tiered parcel tax that would have generated about $37 million annually for the college failed miserably. Proposition O garnered just 35% of the vote in preliminary results, with 45% of ballots yet to be counted. 

To Trustee Alan Wong, both results signal discontent with City College. Faculty and staff are sick of a downward spiral of cuts while voters may be tired of coming to its aid only to see instability in both finances and leadership

“In recent years, people have been seeing a lot of negative news about City College,” Wong said. “People are frustrated and want to see some change.”

What kind of change comes as a result of Tuesday’s election remains to be seen. 

Enrollment—which is central to state funding—at City College has precipitously dropped after a five-year accreditation crisis began a decade ago and was compounded by the pandemic’s impact on education institutions.   

The new leadership comes as City College continues trying to prevent service cuts while the state tells it to brace for an economic downturn.

The Power of Slates

One of the biggest political issues at City College is protecting its status as a community college that provides vocational training and non-credit courses as well as offering students a path to a four-year degree. Balancing both presents a conflict because the state offers more incentives for curriculum that steers students toward four-year colleges. 

Chung, Solomon and Martinez ran behind a platform of protecting the school’s character as a community college, balancing the budget, restoring classes and boosting enrollment by better advertising the school’s free tuition. 

Collectively, they racked up key labor endorsements from faculty union American Federation of Teachers 2021, the San Francisco Labor Council and Service Employees International Union 1021 as well as the San Francisco Democratic Party. 

“In their estimation, [incumbents] had made tough choices needed to stabilize the college and protect its accreditation,” said Adele Failes-Carpenter, AFT 2021 political director. “They didn’t have a vision for protecting the institution or for building enrollment for the college. We need a new way forward.”

While the slate tactic isn’t new, political consultant Jim Ross said it’s unusual to have a strong slate going after incumbents. 

“The challenge is remarkable,” Ross said. “The slate is a really powerful tool when used right in a down ballot race like that. It’s straightforward, it’s clear, you don’t have to wade through so many decision points to figure out what they stand for.”

Ross added that the San Francisco Unified Board of Education race essentially had another slate in Commissioners Lainie Motamedi, Lisa Weissman-Ward and Ann Hsu as mayoral appointees—all three of whom have a comfortable lead in preliminary results. This is despite Hsu campaigning separately for the most part after she caused an uproar by stereotyping Black and Brown families.

An exception to the City College slate’s success is Adolfo Velasquez, who joined after key endorsements and ran one-on-one against Murrell Green, appointed by Breed in May, for a two-year term to complete former Trustee Tom Temprano’s seat. With 58% of the vote as of the latest returns, Green is winning handily.

The challengers spoke to the importance of running as a slate—which could be a lesson for future political battles.

“Even with the changing demographics, we still have many, many disenfranchised working class folks here who feel disenfranchised from the system,” said Solomon, a San Francisco native who retired as United Educators of San Francisco president in 2021, to The Standard. “There’s real potential. We have to find the time, energy and wherewithal to build our second bench so we’re prepared.”

Painful Progress

As painful as the cuts have been at City College, the school is not out of the woods yet—and may face even tougher decisions in the months ahead. 

Last October, the college’s financial instability got it placed on enhanced monitoring by accreditation officials for a second year. But last month, Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its bond rating and revised the outlook from negative to stable after trustees approved the tentative budget that spurred the challengers’ campaigns. 

But financial uncertainty lies ahead, with or without a recession and continued declining enrollment. 

Earlier this year, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office recommended maintaining a minimum reserve to sustain costs for two months—which would at least double the amount of the current 5% mandate City College has struggled to maintain, Trustee Wong said. College districts were advised to change board policy by March 2023.

Wong cautioned that it’s still just a recommendation, but that it could become permanent and affect City College’s ability to maintain its already downsized offerings. At the same time, the new board makeup will mean more questioning of Chancellor David Martin’s budget recommendations and through a pro-labor lens. 

“It puts us in a challenging situation where we’re not really able to offer many of the community-serving classes that people are asking us to provide,” said Wong, who voted against the budget cuts. “The variety of voices will be more contentious than before. I hope that I can be a bridge between all the trustees.”

Wong proposed a budget policy that would have City College work toward the state’s reserve recommendation with a multiyear budget plan and more consistent schedule, like reviewing the preliminary budget by May. 

The new directive may make it tough for challengers to live up to their campaign promises. 

To rousing applause at El Rio on election night, Martinez again vowed to reverse the layoffs upon reaching a majority consensus, either with the existing board or new members challenging incumbents in the 2024 election. 

Martinez, a former teacher and City College administrator of 26 years, told The Standard she was “optimistic” about City College. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen over the next two years,” Martinez said. “It’s been an institution that’s been through a lot, and it’s survived a lot. There’s no other community college in the state, in the nation, that’s quite like City College of San Francisco.”