Monday, September 24, 2012


I Think It’s Called “Chutzpah”

Just a few weeks after the City College of San Francisco was put on severe notice by its regional accreditor, and just a few days after an audit report found that the college is verging on insolvency, CCSF proudly announced...its new 14 story, $138 million building!


I can’t.  I just...I can’t even.

(deep breath)

Okay, I’ll try to stop pounding my head on the table long enough to try to make sense of this.

(deep breath)

In fairness, construction projects are years in the making.  This project apparently started back in the 1990’s, when the college’s situation was less dire.  And in this case, as in most, the money that was spent on construction generally would not have been available for other uses.  In this case, it came from bond issues, donations, and state funds.  The state funds may or may not have theoretically been available for other things, but the bond issues and donations were earmarked.  (The article isn’t clear on who is responsible for paying off the bonds.)  

In some ways, that fiscal distribution shows how long the building has been in the works.  These days, campus construction tends to be more self-funded.  But before the Great Recession, it wasn’t unusual to get dedicated state funds (whether through state bond issues or appropriations) that could only be used for construction.  Capital budgets, which paid for buildings, and operating budgets, which paid for people, couldn’t be mixed.  For a while, it was often easier to pay for a building than to pay for the people who would work in it.

That said, though, a project of this magnitude, at this time, pretty much confirms the picture of a college without a central administration strong enough to say “no.”  Even leaving the money aside -- which is a bit like leaving the iceberg aside when discussing the Titanic -- there’s a basic issue of project and site management.  Given the administrative thinness of CCSF, the idea of adding another site of this magnitude and complexity is simply absurd.  Who’s there to mind the store?

The article doesn’t inspire confidence.  It notes:

Closing some City College campuses has been discussed as one way to save money. But even the state's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team - brought in to help City College - was frustrated because the college is unsure of how much any of its campuses cost.
"They don't have the data to show whether they're saving money or not" on the new campus, said Michelle Plumbtree, an analyst with the team. "It's definitely a problem."

Yes, it is.

I’m guessing that the people on campus are thinking that this will bring in tremendous new revenue, one way or another, and/or swing community political sentiment to its side.  Anything is possible, but if it looks like an albatross and it walks like an albatross...

I don’t say this lightly.  The new building may well fetch a good price at the liquidation sale.  Meanwhile, it’s time for the California system to draw up an entirely new plan for serving the students of San Francisco.  

so California.
Somehow I've come to expect nothing less from Cali.
I’m guessing that the people on campus are thinking that this will bring in tremendous new revenue, one way or another, and/or swing community political sentiment to its side.

As you have previously observed, increased enrollment does exactly zero for CA CC's for it's not about enrollment revenue. As you also observe in your post, capital and operational budgets are different beasts. This new building could actually cut costs if it allows SFCC to stop leasing property within the city or if it allows them to close or sell some of their older high maintenance buildings. It could be a source of revenue if the CC manages to lease the space – but even then, I’m not sure the money would go back to the CC.

This illustrates what happens when a community willing to tax its self to build infrastructure (San Francisco) runs afoul of the CA state level paralysis - where a few tax phobic zealots have prevented the majority of the legislature from enacting even the most benign fees and taxes to try to drag the state out of the budgetary pit into which it has fallen (one example - a $73 car registration fee which would have basically turned the whole budget around). Our only hope is to repeal the parts of Prop 13 that requires a 2/3 vote for any taxes and fees and to have the redistricting process create districts that have enough diversity that moderates can be elected to our legislature. Excluding commercial property from prop 13 would also help. Right now, both the dems and the pubs have taken their vengeance on anyone in the party willing to compromise and it’s brought us to an impossible place.
I thought this article from 2011 that turned up in a search was more informative. You shouldn't be pounding your head on the table as if they started it this past summer, during the accreditation and budget crisis, rather than in 2002 after buying the land in 1998 as you get around to mentioning. Would they have been better off to abandon the project a year ago, just write off the entire expenditure, and let the bondholders deal with it?

What you should be looking at is the multitude of management errors described in this older article, including that the groundbreaking took place 1 year after the project was originally supposed to be completed. One delay involved the failure of the college to get the plans approved before bidding the project. That error was discovered in an investigation into "unrelated" corruption charges! What a mess. A mess that does provide some insight into that college's management.
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