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Free City College!

By Marcy Rein, Vicki Legion and Mickey Ellinger

This article is a preview from the book Free City! Reclaiming College of San Francisco and Free Education for All.

Community colleges serve more than 40 percent of all US college students and provide a crucial entry point to post-secondary education for working class students and students of color. California teaches an outsize share of community college students, and City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is one of the state’s largest. Since its founding in 1935, CCSF has grown deep roots in the community. It teaches firefighters, chefs, medical techs and scores of other essential workers; its English as a Second Language department, the school’s largest, has taught English to generations of new immigrants; it has opened paths to four-year colleges, second chances, and lifelong learning. Sometimes called “the most important working class institution in San Francisco,” it stands firm on the 1960s legacy of open admissions.

The education reform project, jumping the fence from K – 12 to community colleges, takes aim at this legacy. Reformers seek to narrow the mission of community colleges to completion of degrees and certificates for the corporate workforce, pressuring students to take heavy course loads and channeling them toward taking out student loans.

City College students, teachers, administrators, and trustees united against the reform agenda and led the California opposition to it. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)——one of six regional bodies authorized by the US government to ensure educational quality in community colleges——was a vocal reform supporter.

In 2012, ACCJC slapped City College with the harshest sanction short of closure, though the school had never been sanctioned before and was widely regarded as one of the best community colleges in the country. A year later, the commission said it would terminate accreditation, which would kill the school.

The ACCJC sanctions set off the crisis that brought “shock treatment” to the school. A new interim chancellor created chaos with mass firings and drastic “reorganization” schemes. She bullied the elected trustees into shrinking the school’s mission and closing campuses, as well as accepting both a special trustee with veto power and a fiscal review that mandated “structural adjustment” policies, including attacks on wages, benefits and job security.

Supporters of City College fought on every front possible. San Francisco voters passed the Proposition A parcel tax to support the school financially. American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 (AFT 2121), CCSF’s faculty union, mounted legal, regulatory and political challenges to the Accrediting Commission’s authority, as well as an internal organizing effort. Save CCSF, a feisty faculty/staff/student/community coalition, dug into the roots of the crisis and pulled people into the streets. Militant students held teach-ins, rallied, and occupied campus buildings and the mayor’s office.

RP&E  Volume 21-1, “Power in Place,” included a package of articles that set the unfolding struggle for City College in the context of both education “reform” and the displacement sweeping San Francisco. In a forthcoming book tentatively titled Free City! Reclaiming City College of San Francisco, RP&E contributor Marcy Rein collaborates with Vicki Legion and Mickey Ellinger to tell the story of the successful 2012-2017 campaign to keep CCSF open, accredited and community-centered. Free City! is due out from PM Press in Fall 2020. The preview that follows takes place in 2013, just after the ACCJC announced its intention to shut down the school in a year’s time, and the state of California put it under emergency management with the special trustee in charge.

All the Work Matters

The July 9 rally at the US Department of Education (DOE) office felt and sounded like a revival city college student trustee. Shanell Williams kicked it off: “We are not here to mourn; we are here to fight!” It was a call and response crowd: “We did everything we were told by the special trustee Bob Agrella, who has sole power over our college now and makes a thousand dollars a day”—boos—“shame on him!”  The crowd echoed “shame, shame, shame!” 

“They want to steal our right to a quality affordable education.  Are we going to let that happen?” 

“No. No. No!”

And the crowd’s favorite, State Assembly member Tom Ammiano, joking, pointing upward: “Look in the sky—it’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s SuperTrustee!” The crowd roared and clapped, and Ammiano turned serious.

“I spent two years in Viet Nam and the mantra then was, ‘We destroyed the village to save it.’ Well, fuck you! ...There’s another agenda here and I want every elected official from the mayor on down to protect our family.

“They’re punishing the wrong people and who the fuck are they to punish anybody? I’m tired of Mommie Dearest the executive director and them not respecting our diversity, not respecting our gender diversity, not respecting anything San Francisco stands for. City College is a success. City College is a treasure. What’s the real agenda here? …

“They have not the right to say to us that the people we elected, whether we love them or not, are not our representatives. That is tyranny!” he yelled. “That encourages a revolution here in San Francisco.”

The New Blow to the School

A year earlier when the accreditation commission slapped the show cause order on City College, people were stunned and fearful.  When, after a year of work to meet the standards, the ACCJC moved to close the school, they were furious.

The crowd had begun massing in front of Downtown Campus at Fourth and Mission Streets at 4pm on Wednesday, July 9. The Brass Liberation Orchestra backed up the boisterous chants that buoyed the crowd down Market Street: “Whose college? Our college!” “Education is our right/that is why we have to fight,” and of course, “Save City College!” By the time it reached the DOE offices in the heart of the Financial District, it was 4,000 strong. Unions and community groups joined CCSF students and faculty, and homemade signs sprouted everywhere.

“If you looked down Market Street, you couldn’t see an end to the march,” Williams remembered. You saw “streams of people all with the same energy and same feeling of frustration, an uprising of San Franciscans saying ‘You’re not going to take this away from us.’”

The termination letter jolted people into action who’d been on the sidelines before. One was Thea Matthews, who’d just started studying at City College. “When the news dropped that City College may go under I just broke down and cried….[T]he woman I am today is because of City College, the relationships, the bonds that people make there. It’s a really magical space,” Matthews said.

“I was bawling my eyes out,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do?’ and I called my counselor Sarah Thompson, ‘What am I going to do, City College is going to go away!’

“And she just said, ‘You get up and you fight. Don’t let them take this from you. No, you take a stand and you fight back.’ Like, ‘Whose city? Our city!’ And that really helped take the snot and tears off my face and get me up off the carpet floor in my bedroom. And that was the turning point of, ‘OK time to get involved.’” So she went to the march, linked up with the Save CCSF student organizers, and began helping with outreach to summer session students.

The day after the march, Save CCSF brought former CFT president and ACCJC expert Marty Hittelman to speak at their open meeting. Before a packed house at CCSF’s Mission campus, Hittelman forcefully argued that the ACCJC’s extraordinary sanction rate was driven by a predetermined agenda, not a legitimate educational critique. A week later AFT 2121, with help from Assembly member Ammiano, pulled together another packed community forum in a large auditorium at the California State Building. That event highlighted the college’s deep roots in communities of color, with moving testimony from students and community members about programs ranging from certificates in health care interpreting and drug and alcohol counseling to post-prison support programs. Local politicians and leaders who had been hanging back, like Supervisor John Avalos, stepped up to speak in support of the college. The State Building forum was also the first time the Save CCSF Research Committee mass leafleted a discussion paper about the roots of the crisis in corporate education “reform.”

Organizers sought to capture people’s energy, offering involvement as an antidote to despair. But the full weight of the moment crashed down on AFT 2121 in its contract talks.

Bargaining With Their Backs to the Wall

Three people sat across from the AFT 2121 bargaining team at their first session since the termination notice: SFCCD’s longtime employee relations officer Mickey Branca; Jeff Sloan from the corporate law firm Renne, Sloan, Holtzman, Sakai, LLP—and the California Community Colleges Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Steve Bruckman, who played a key role in putting the state takeover in place.

Since March 2012, contract talks between AFT 2121 and the San Francisco Community College District (SFCCD) had been jolting along like a car with worn shocks on a rocky road. Even before the ACCJC’s show cause order, the district’s tight finances posed a major obstacle. The cancellation of the 2010 summer session, the aging facilities and faulty computers frustrated teachers as well as students. Faculty had not had a raise since 2007. They had even agreed to temporary pay cuts totaling 4.3%, in the cooperative spirit of the bargaining that brought union gains in better times.

“They went through two or three administrations when they actually got some stuff, they got job security and 80% pro-rata pay for part-timers,” said Joe Berry, a labor studies instructor, long-time organizer of part-time faculty, and Local 2121 Executive Board member.

Previous chancellors, though they didn’t take part in negotiations, did talk with union leaders “off the record.” Interim Chancellor Fisher refused to even chat with the union without an attorney present.

Talks had already been bumpy when Local 2121’s contract expired in June 2012. The two sides agreed to a six-month extension, but bargaining only got gnarlier after the show cause order and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report.1 FCMAT tagged three decades of union gains as threats to fiscal responsibility. Its report slammed City College for its high percentage of full-time teachers, as well as the health benefits and pay scale for part-timers.2

Just nine days after San Francisco voters supported Prop A’s $14-16 million per year lifeline, the district administration sent a letter to the union demanding a new raft of givebacks, including permanent wage cuts, lower pay rates for part-time faculty, and—for the first time—worker contributions to retiree health care. Employee Relations Manager Steve Hale prefaced this list in his Nov. 19 letter with the comment, “The issues identified below address accreditation recommendations and long-term structural deficiencies identified by FCMAT.”

By the new contract expiration date of December 31, 2012, the two sides were farther apart than ever. Interim Chancellor Scott-Skillman put coal in the faculty’s Christmas stocking with her Dec. 20 letter announcing that the district was imposing a 4.4% pay cut effective Jan. 2, 2013, with another 5% scheduled for July. The union filed a grievance with the California Public Employment Relations Board, and went back to bargaining.

The spring saw little progress. Then came the ACCJC’s termination letter and the state takeover.

The takeover galvanized members. “People were upset and kept coming to the office to see what they could do to help,” said AFT 2121 Organizer Athena Waid. The local channeled some of that energy into ongoing community outreach and organizing, and harnessed some to support the bargaining. It invited members and community supporters to come to bargaining sessions. The district wouldn’t allow observers at the negotiating table, so the union asked people to come, sit in another room, and caucus with the negotiating team on breaks. The local also expanded the team; one of the new members was Jessica Buchsbaum, an ESL teacher at the Downtown Campus.

When she heard about the termination, Buchsbaum said, “My first thought was, ‘What the heck?’ and my second thought was, ‘Well, AFT2121 will take care of it,’ and then my third thought was, ‘Well, where’s AFT 2121?’” She laughed sheepishly. “That was my moment of awakening.”

Still, she said, “Becoming a union activist was not on my to-do list.” She was the mother, of two boys, aged two and seven, and her mother had Parkinson’s disease.

“I was in a world of imminent crisis between the kids, my mother and my job in 2013, everything falling apart. The fact that it was this existential crisis really pushed me to become more involved, because our family depended on the job.” First she helped organize the July 18 forum at the State Building, and then Alisa Messer invited her to be part of the bargaining team.

The union called for a week of intensive negotiations in early August 2013, just before the beginning of the fall semester. Members turned out to bolster the negotiating team.

“I’m here to see with my own eyes what these guys are doing, and I want the people in the negotiations to know they have faculty union and community support,” said Malaika Finkelstein who taught in Disabled Students Programs and Services.

The bargaining sessions themselves proved excruciating. The two sides met in the small, windowless conference room at 33 Gough St. “I still get the heebejeebes going in there. It smells so bad,” Buchsbaum said.

“It was super-emotional, full days—eight hour, sometimes 10-hour days, and we were having to make these terrible decisions. They wanted to get rid of rehire rights, any kind of rights for part-timers, cut our pay by 10–12%. One of the hardest things I remember bargaining over was prescription drug co-pay reimbursements” for full-timers. “That benefit didn’t affect very many people…. but for people with a chronic illness, it was thousands and thousands of dollars every year. For the very few, it would make a huge, huge impact… and we decided to let it go, because we decided it would be better to have a smaller pay cut for everybody.

“We were over a barrel. It was the low point of the whole thing. It was awful. I remember Alisa Messer basically didn’t eat that whole time. She would drink these tea things but she couldn’t actually put food in her mouth…everyone who was at the bargaining table or supporting us felt brutalized by that process,” Buchsbaum said.

Some Local 2121 members believed a strike could right the imbalance of power at the negotiating table. AFT Organizer Alyssa Picard helped the local think through this strategy.

“The local had a good activist base but not a wide reach,” said Picard, a veteran of graduate student and adjunct faculty organizing who’d been deployed by AFT’s national office to help Local 2121 through the crisis. “They [the local] had a core of about 50–75 people whose commitment to the union and the progressive values of the union was a mile deep,” many more members they’d never talked to, and sharp disagreements in the ranks.

“There was the left flank, people who would show up and say, ‘We should’ve gone on strike six months ago, you’re a crappy union leader for not having taken us out on strike,’ and some people, including some very reasonable people…. whose initial posture was, ‘We need to figure out how to do these things the ACCJC is asking us to do.’…. It was a weird gamut of opinion among the faculty about what ought to be happening and who ought to be doing it, and just a pretty fractured situation,” Picard said. She helped Local 2121 launch a serious internal reorganization. It reinvigorated its precinct rep structure and set out to talk with all its members. The tool it used to open the door was a petition to Special Trustee with extraordinary powers Robert Agrella.

Just after the intensive negotiations wrapped up, CCSF supporters got their first bits of good news.

First Turnings

State Chancellor Harris addressed the CCSF faculty in the Flex Day assembly Aug. 13, 2013, the day before fall semester classes started. “I remember he gave this ridiculous speech about how he was working with us to save the college,” Tarik Farrar said. But Harris left out one critical bit: DOE had just sent a letter to the ACCJC upholding some key elements in AFT 2121’s complaint.3

The DOE agreed with the union that appointing Barbara Beno’s husband to the visiting team created the appearance of conflict of interest, and that the team didn’t include enough faculty members. The department also found fault with the ACCJC’s evaluation process. It noted that the commission used “recommendation” to mean both recommendations for improvement and the much more serious “non-compliance with standards,” which could trigger sanctions. The commission’s failure to identify deficiencies “impacts the agency’s ability to provide institutions with adequate due process,” the DOE letter said.

Also, the DOE noted, ACCJC identified two serious issues in its 2006 “action letter” to CCSF and required two interim reports. But the agency didn’t comply with the “two year rule,” which would’ve required CCSF to come into compliance within two years or face sanctions. “The ACCJC cannot treat an issue [as] serious enough to require reporting and to be part of the rationale for the show cause letter, but not serious enough to enforce the timeline to return to compliance, as required by federal regulation,” the letter stated.

The DOE could have taken action against the ACCJC right away. Instead, it gave the agency a year to come into compliance. The department’s finding also sidestepped the questions of political agenda, conflict of interest over the retiree health benefit prepayment, and anti-union bias that the union included in the complaint.

As the wheels of the regulatory process began to grind, student activists once again took direct action to highlight the high stakes in the fight.

Students Take City Hall: ‘Where’s Ed Lee?’

Student activists had been trying to get a meeting with Mayor Ed Lee since the state takeover seven weeks earlier. Several times they politely asked the mayor’s office for an appointment.

“We wondered if Ed Lee or a representative would meet with us,” Eric Blanc said. “Some people were really hoping he would. They just systematically ignored us.” The students carefully prepared to escalate their request. When they started talking civil disobedience, they made the risks quite clear.

“We were really conscious that we weren’t putting anybody—in particular without papers or who had priors—at risk,” Blanc said. “We did a forum and [during the action we] made a lot of announcements suggesting that people leave if any of these things applied to them. We knew it was politically important not to put people at risk without their having full knowledge.” Newly engaged students stepped up at this point; others who’d already been involved took more leadership.

The Aug. 20 action began with a rally in front of San Francisco City Hall. “A number of people were there who were outside supporters of City College students,” Windsong said. “We had passed the bullhorn around and talked about ourselves and our involvement and it was just really cool to hear other people’s stories. That’s one of the inspiring things about rallies.

“Different characters stuck in my mind… it was so beautiful, the different kinds of people: elders, a mother who talked about how taking classes had helped her. There was a big presence from VIDA with the undocumented perspective and that was incredibly inspiring. There were other people who were City College alums and had moved on to [San Francisco] State and were now doing organizing at State, and they were talking about the importance of Diversity Studies. A lot of people were shouting out to the Diversity Studies departments how learning about their cultural background really empowered them as people.”

As the rally ended, students filtered in to City Hall. Someone even managed to smuggle in a banner.

“We went to bring the rally inside, because ‘we deserve for you [the mayor] to hear us’,” said Thea Matthews. This was one of her first protests ever. The attack on City College politicized her, she said: “I learned that…what I’m living in this present moment, what I’m being impacted by, is political and is connected, inherently connected, to the systemic infrastructure of this society, the systemic lines of oppression, and it’s not just some macro-level bullshit in the ether.”

The students planted themselves in front of Mayor Lee’s office and hung their banner over the wrought-iron balustrade facing the marble staircase that sweeps up from the lobby to the second floor. They came in just before the end of the workday, and their last request for a meeting with the mayor went unheeded.

In the measured language of their press release, the Student Committee of Save City College said the mayor “has the political and moral responsibility as the leader of San Francisco to throw his weight behind the effort to overturn the ACCJC attacks on City College.” But once inside, they sent their chant ricocheting off the building’s dome.

“Where’s Ed Lee? Where’s Ed Lee?”

They held the space until almost midnight. In between chanting and singing, they played “the type of games that you would play at camp, silly ice-breaker type things,” Blanc said. “I remember being pretty goofy and it being a funny contrast between this lighthearted almost festival type spirit of the occupation, with the periodic police announcements that we were going to be arrested.”

They got hungry, too, and tired; the wooden benches and marble floors didn’t lend themselves to comfortable naps.

Around midnight the police finally carried out their arrest threats.

“When we were getting arrested, when the sheriffs gave the disperse order, we said ‘no,’ and they started arresting us one by one,” said Matthews. “We sat down, and as we got up one by one, we sang civil rights songs—Windsong is a singer—it was beautiful, we had smiles on our faces, we were happy because we knew we were doing the right thing. Thank God there was no confrontation or agitation between students and police. It was like they understood what we were doing.

“And they took us into this little hidden area in the City Hall building. We all got ticketed and discharged. The tickets had court dates on them, but we had lawyers and thankfully the charges were dropped.”

Standing, daring and laughing together forged strong bonds among the new and more seasoned activists. “Everybody came out of that as friends. You made friends in an intense way overnight. It’s hard to imagine in any other context that happening so rapidly,” Blanc said. And coming when it did, the sit-in helped weight the narrative towards the supporters of City College. A surprise announcement from an obscure body in Sacramento nudged the needle further.

 ‘I have never met with a more arrogant, condescending or dismissive individual’

A markedly bi-partisan “good government” consensus triggered a state investigation of the ACCJC.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Yuba City), a long-time right-wing stalwart, represented rural north-central California. On his Senate web page, he proudly identified as a rancher and a defender of private property rights against “overzealous government bureaucrats.” Lifelong liberal Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) spent his career advocating for affordable housing, better transportation, and support for foster youth. These two co-authored a letter requesting that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee formally ask the California State Auditor’s office to look into the ACCJC.

Sen. Beall led off their Aug. 21, 2013 presentation to the committee. Bald and broad-shouldered, Beall rose to the mic to declare the ACCJC a “monopoly…The stakes are high and the commission’s power is absolute,” he said. “We believe it is imperative that the commission be audited by the state auditor.” 

Sen. Nielsen spoke from his seat, shock of iron-gray hair vibrating with indignation. He stressed that the audit request would apply to community colleges around the state. Complaints from various schools, the ACCJC’s lack of accountability, and the DOE complaint had thrown up red flags for him, he said. Then he and Sen. Beall had met with Barbara Beno.

“In all my career, in my thousands of meetings with agencies and individuals, representatives, secretaries, etc., I have never dealt with a more arrogant, condescending and dismissive individual,” Nielsen said. ”That attitude in such a senior person raises huge red flags for me… And we had asked for lots of information, Senator Beall and I. We had previously and formally asked for it and we asked for it in this meeting. 

“Three days after meeting with these individuals from the ACCJC, President Beno released a commission statement—I have a copy of it here—directing members of the evaluation team to shred confidential documents, personal notes, evaluation team reports, committee reports and evidentiary documents provided by an institution. Shredding of documents! Talk about red flags, ladies and gentlemen, that certainly is one. What have they got to hide?” Nielsen said.

The audit request passed the committee by a 10-1 vote, with three abstentions.

The next day would see the biggest crack in the gloom yet, with City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s announcement that his office was suing the ACCJC to keep City College open.

The People Challenge ACCJC

Ever since CCSF’s crisis began, people had been coming to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera asking what he could do. “There were a lot of conversations that were happening,” Alisa Messer said. “I don’t know everybody who talked to Herrera but I know Tom Ammiano talked to Herrera. [Newly elected City College trustee] Rafael Mandelman got a meeting with him,” she said.

In the beginning Herrera didn’t see much of a legal hook. “People approached me more as a politician than as a lawyer,” he said.

San Francisco is one of only 11 California cities that elects its top lawyer, and voters have favored aggressive advocates. Herrera’s predecessor, Louise Renne, sued the swanky Olympic Club for excluding women and people of color, and was one of the first city attorneys in the country to sue tobacco companies to recover the costs of medical treatment for smoking-related illnesses.

Herrera won his first term in 2001; in 2004, he filed the first suit defending lesbian and gay couples’ right to marry, and his office litigated on the issue until the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality in 2013.

When he heard the ACCJC planned to close the school, he was “outraged,” Herrera said, “and I was outraged by what I perceived to be just sort of a go-along to get-along approach by some elected officials and regulators. Instead of focusing on the importance of City College and how we could keep it open and serve San Franciscans, they took it almost as a fait accompli….

“Considering the history of this office and its independence and the ability we have to use the power of the law to fight injustice, I felt we had a real opportunity if we could find the right legal hook.” He called on the “complex and special” litigation team to investigate.

No one on the team knew anything about accreditation and its arcane rules. “We started with Google, embarrassingly enough…. We start there more often than we’d like to admit, when we don’t know the lay of the land at all and are trying to get our minds around a completely new thing,” said Sara Eisenberg, the deputy city attorney who led the City College work. Then the team members read everything they could find, including all the ACCJC’s reports about City College and other schools and AFT 2121’s complaint to the DOE.

“We dug in quickly, and got up to speed as fast as we could. The more we dug in, the more we found there was something there that was not right,” said Eisenberg. About seven weeks of research convinced the team they had a strong case.

At an Aug. 22, 2013 press conference, Herrera—with Eisenberg standing just behind him—announced that his office was suing the ACCJC in state Superior Court on behalf of the people of California. People of the State of California ex rel. Dennis Herrera v. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, et al charged the ACCJC with bias and flawed process.

“The accreditor withdrew accreditation in retaliation for City College having embraced and advocated a different vision for California’s community colleges than the ACCJC,” Herrera said at the news conference.

In quick strokes the complaint painted a picture of City College, its commitment to open access, and its strong role in opposing the Student Success Task Force and the proposals that flowed from it. The case exposed the corporate roots of the “student success” agenda and the ACCJC’s aggressive advocacy for it, which put it in direct conflict with City College.

The complaint contended: “By evaluating City College while embroiled in a public political fight over the proper mission, vision and role of community colleges in California, and in specific ways detailed below, the ACCJC violated both its own conflict of interest policy….as well as California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business and Professions Code Section 17200 et. seq., which prohibits unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business acts and practices.”

Citing the Department of Education’s findings, the complaint also objected to the lack of academics on the ACCJC visiting teams, the appointment of Barbara Beno’s husband to the 2012 team, and the Commission’s failure to distinguish between “noncompliance with accreditation standards” and “areas of improvement.”

The suit sought to overturn the show cause and termination decisions against City College and block the ACCJC “from engaging in accreditation evaluations at any of California’s 112 community colleges in a manner that violates applicable federal or state law.”

The filing brought immediate blowback.

“I remember the beef with the mayor’s office,” Herrera said. “They called me down there and were, like, ‘Who’s your client?’

“My client? The people of the State of California. I don’t need to represent the City and County. It’s a 17200 action, I can do what I want…. We got into it. We got into it hard,” he said.

The San Francisco Chronicle blistered Herrera for filing the suit. Its editorial titled “Off target” charged him with “playing with fire.”

“When you have a losing argument, change the subject,” the Aug. 23 editorial began. “That’s been the approach of certain City College defenders who want the (sic) attack an accreditation commission instead of the serious problems it has identified. Now City Attorney Dennis Herrera has put his imprimatur and legal muscle behind this dubious tack of distraction that is raising the risk of a shutdown.”

People kept emailing the editorial to Sara Eisenberg. She was sitting at her desk biting her nails when Herrera rang. “In some really colorful language, he said ‘forget those guys, we’re doing the right thing, you’re doing a great job, keep going’,” Eisenberg said.

Herrera also heard from CCSF administrators. “In the beginning it’s fair to say that there were folks there who thought that our litigation would impede ongoing political and other issues at City College,” Herrera said. 

“There was a feeling I was taking one side, on behalf of teachers, labor, against administrators and others that were trying to impose reforms on City College to get it on better financial footing…where I was just focused on keeping the place open and making sure ACCJC was playing by the rules,” he said.

Still, having the city attorney act on such a strong critique of the ACCJC sent the strongest signal yet that the activists defending City College might yet prevail.

An email tipped African American Studies Department Chair Tarik Farrar off to Herrera’s press conference, and he pulled a news site up on his computer. “I just sat there and started crying,” Farrar said. He likened it to the climactic moment in the third Lord of the Rings movie.

“Minas Tirith is under siege and the army was coming from Mordor, and its forces have broken the wall, and Gandalf is pulling back the forces, and they’re running up to the top tower. It seems all is lost and then you hear this horn off in the distance (da-nuh, da-nuh he hummed softly) and if you’ve seen the second movie you recognize that horn. That’s the horn that they brought from Rohan.

“Gandalf looks out and you see this ledge out in the distance and suddenly you see these horses coming up to the edge of the ledge. Rohan had been called three days earlier, and there they were, all massed on the hill. The battle wasn’t over by any means but somebody with some strength and determination [had arrived]…

“Ed Lee had been doing nothing but criticize and here’s Dennis Herrera. I guess when that happened I felt, ‘We’re going to be OK’,” Farrar said. n

© 2018 by Marcy Rein, Vicki Legion and Mickey Ellinger



1.          The state legislature established the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) in 1991 “to help California’s local educational agencies fulfill their financial and management responsibilities by providing fiscal advice, management assistance, training and other related school business services.” (from In the guise of offering technical assistance, FCMAT has helped push privatization and austerity. In 2003, it played a key role in the takeover of the Oakland Unified School District. Ten years after the takeover, one in four Oakland students attended a charter school.

2.          Before AFT 2121 made “equal pay for equal work” a priority, part-time faculty got paid on a lower scale than full-timers teaching the same classes. Over more than two decades, the local organized and bargained to put all faculty on the same scale, with part-time pay set at a percentage of full-time—“pro-rated,” so it is called “pro-rata” pay. Full-timers have some non-teaching duties that part-timers do not, hence the higher pay.

3.               The US Department of Education authorizes accrediting agencies. AFT 2121, along with the California Federation of Teachers, filed a formal complaint against the ACCJC with the department in April 2013. The complaint charged the accrediting commission with violating federal and state laws and its own internal rules, and asked the DOE to order it to rectify the abuses. For more information, see

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