City College’s funny money

Pub date July 3, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There’s an excuse for every dollar of bond money that the San Francisco Community College District board has misspent in the past 10 years: The cost of construction materials has gone up (thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the rapid industrialization of China). State grants weren’t what the administration expected. One staffer did a bad job with price estimating. The list goes on and on.

But in the end, the truth remains: City College officials have lied to the voters. They’ve taken $130 million in bond money that was supposed to go to one set of projects and moved it to other projects. And they’ve gone $225 million over budget on three bond acts — so they’re preparing to come back to the voters for a fourth infusion of cash.

And all of this has happened without the performance audit that state law requires for community college bonds.

As G.W. Schulz reports on page 15, City College administrators say they never intended to shift the bond money around like tokens in a three-card monte game. It’s just that some projects weren’t ready and some needed more money and some changed in priority — and of course, according to the district’s lawyers, it was all perfectly legal. Maybe so — but it’s awfully fishy and even at best is a serious violation of public trust.

When the voters approve a bond act to pay for, say, a new performing arts center at City College, there’s an implicit assumption that the taxpayer money they agree to spend will actually be used for what they were told. That may not always be exactly possible; once a big institution starts on a half-billion-dollar spending program, a few things won’t turn out the way they were supposed to. That’s why the law allows a little wiggle room. But in the end, overall, most of the money ought to go for what the voters were promised.

And in ballot arguments and presentations to the community over the years, the City College administration and the board have offered a very explicit set of proposals. We’ve seen all those presentations; never once has Chancellor Philip Day or one of the board members told us that the voters would be writing in effect a blank check — that the specific projects listed on the bond act might or might not be completed, or that the money might be shifted somewhere else at the whim of the board at some later date.

That, sadly, is exactly what’s happened — on a massive scale. More than 25 percent of the bond money has been "reallocated" — earmarked for one project, then spent on another. The most obvious and most controversial has been the gym (which City College likes to call a "wellness center"). As we first reported Sept. 22, 2004 (see "Field of Schemes"), the trustees shifted $53 million that we’d been promised would be spent on an arts center and other projects to the gym, which includes a pool so expensive to operate that it’s going to be leased out in the afternoons to a private school across the street.

The wellness center may be a perfectly worthy project (the pool nonsense aside), but it’s not what the voters were told they were approving. And it’s hardly the only example. In one case, Schulz reports, the City College staff clearly knew before election day that the information in the ballot handbook was inaccurate and the money would be spent in different ways than what the voters were promised.

State law requires that public agencies conduct performance audits of these large bond projects — but that’s never been done at City College. Only now, with the District Attorney’s Office crawling all over campus and criminal charges possible, has the board finally approved an audit.

Meanwhile, the college board still hasn’t adopted the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance — which isn’t surprising, since all of this has the feel of a series of backroom deals. Even some trustees, like Milton Marks III, who don’t outright oppose the reallocations say the money was moved without the board getting proper information from the administration.

City College is too important an institution to have its future (and the needs of the students and faculty) jeopardized by these kinds of political games. The board’s performance audit needs to move forward apace — and the trustees ought to hire someone like Harvey Rose to do a full financial audit of where the money’s gone, why the budget is so badly busted, and what can be done to clean it up.

If the district attorney is investigating possible wrongdoing in some of the campaigns, she might have her staff look into the bond reallocations too. And if indeed this is all legal, then the state Legislature needs to change the law and require that institutions using bond money pay at least a modicum of attention to what the voters were promised when it comes time to start writing checks. *