City College of San Francisco is out to prove that even a behemoth can be nimble when being chased by a predator. Late Thursday afternoon, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved CCSF’s voluntary request for a special trustee to help the country’s largest community college hold on to its accreditation. The

Job Application for City College of San Francisco Special Trustee. (Click to enlarge).

application is online, the deadline to apply is Tuesday, October 9, and interviews begin next week. Acting Chancellor Erik Skinner wants the job filled by the end of this month.

The qualifications call for heavy lifting with a light touch. Unlike the state-appointed overseer who’ll soon be taking control of the Inglewood Unified School District, City College’s special trustee will not commandeer control from the local board of trustees. The position is vested with some power. It’s called Stay and Rescind authority, and it allows the special trustee to block or veto any decision made by the local board of trustees that’s inconsistent with the school’s recovery plan, such as voting for salary increases.

Skinner described the special trustee as “kind of a tweener,” saying that success or failure depends on developing a cooperative relationship between the special trustee and CCSF’s Board of Trustees. “It depends on having a special trustee with the right combination of knowledge, strength, and interpersonal skills to cooperate well with the board.”

It worked well at Solano and Lassen Community Colleges, which, like City College, were at one time placed on “show cause,” the most severe finding by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).  College of the Redwoods, also on the “show cause” list, hired a special trustee in August for $10,000 per month.

CCSF faces deficit spending of between $2.5 and $27.8 million within 2 years. Source: FCMAT (Click to enlarge).

The local college districts bear the cost of the special trustee, which can vary depending such factors as how much work there is to do.  A full-timer will earn about as much as a community college president or top administrator, somewhere in the range of $120,000 to $190,000.  City College has a long to-do list.

Financially, it faces insolvency. A review  of finances by the independent Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, known as FCMAT, found that if nothing changes, the college will be in the red by $2.5 million to $27.8 million within two years. “The fiscal issues are significant, severe, and I think anything you read in the report is not exaggerated,” FCMAT’s CEO Joel Montero told the Board of Governors yesterday. “I can’t think of any other term than scary.”

Money troubles aren’t everything, however, and the accrediting commission report attests to that.  As EdSource Today has reported, the commission cited CCSF for problems with its data system, for having inefficient decision-making processes, for paying benefits to part-time faculty and staff that far outweigh any other community colleges, and for having a weak system for ensuring that students are learning and succeeding.

Voluntarily requesting a special trustee to provide oversight and advice is a step in the right direction, said ACCJC president Barbara Beno.  City College has until October 15 to present its improvement plan to the commission, and must have implemented the plan by March.  “Those verb tenses are important,” said Beno.  “We’re looking at the concrete actions taken by a district. An accredited college meets standards, it’s not trying, it’s not in the process, it meets standards.”

Acting Community College Chancellor Erik Skinner explains the role of a special trustee as Board of Governors President Scott Himelstein looks on. Source: Live video feed of BOG meeting. (Click to enlarge).

Faculty members are encouraged by the Board’s decision to bring in an expert, even though the Academic Senate didn’t take an official position on it.  “Given the circumstances, clearly it looks like that was a good decision to make,” said Karen Saginor, a librarian and president of the Academic Senate.  She’s looking forward to getting a fresh perspective from someone on the outside, but hopes the person isn’t too far out.

“It would be good to have somebody who is familiar with the problems of large urban campuses,” Saginor said.  “Some of the issues that we face have to do with who our students are and the kinds of complexity our students face.”

There hasn’t been a plethora of candidates, however.  Up to now, Thomas Henry, former head of FCMAT, has been the special trustee of choice.  Skinner said the pool of applicants is growing, partly because of strong recruitment amid concerns that more community colleges may need help staying afloat if Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax measure to fund education, fails.

“Candidly, I think we’re mindful of the fact that given tight budgets there may be a need for even more special trustees in the future,” said Skinner.  “And so as we go through this recruitment process we are definitely keeping a list of the qualified individuals.”

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