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Nineteen months ago, Robert Agrella retired from his long-held post as president of Santa Rosa Junior College to the promise of more time to spend under the hood of his Triumph TR-6.

Now, he finds himself with the fate of City College of San Francisco in his hands.

Agrella, who retired from SRJC after 22 years at the helm, is now special trustee "with extraordinary power" over the future of a college nearly three times the size of Santa Rosa Junior College.

Agrella, 69, said Wednesday he expects to not only move fast, but succeed, in steering City College out of the financial and management quagmire that has left the institution on the brink of collapse.

His appointment comes as the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has given the school until July 2014 to fix myriad financial, managerial and student support service issues or lose its accreditation.

Loss of accreditation would effectively shutter the school.

"The whole idea behind having the special trustee in there is to streamline the process and procedures and take some action that needs to be taken," he said.

Agrella, who was working as special trustee with more limited authority since November, had veto power over decisions by the board of trustees, but said Wednesday he "never had to exert that publicly."

The new role is far more powerful and effectively suspends the elected members of the board of trustees.

He will be able to close campuses and programs. Officials are still searching for a permanent college chancellor and that person will report to Agrella.

"It is not anti-democratic. It's all in trying to save an institution from going under," he said.

Agrella will not be able to override labor deals with rank-and-file employee groups.

"Clearly if you could unilaterally change some of the collective bargaining agreements, you could make some pretty great savings. That is not a possibility. You have to negotiate that," he said.

A tentative agreement has been reached with classified staff and talks continue with teachers, operating engineers and others, he said.

But already the California Federation of Teachers has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the accreditation commission's ruling and leaders have called into question the wisdom of handing one person near-complete control.

"What they have sanctioned San Francisco City College on has nothing to do with instruction or learning," said Jim Mahler, president of CFT's 20,000-member Community College Council. "We think they are way out of bounds on what they are sanctioning the college on.

"They are not following their own rules, they are not following their own bylaws. There is no transparency," he said.

Mahler also questioned the appointment of Agrella — the same man who has had significant authority over the board's moves since November without success in staving off the most recent accreditation ruling.

"They are appointing the same person to get them out of the mess," he said. "It's kind of like the definition of insanity."

Agrella, who successfully steered SRJC through three accreditation cycles, said he trusts the process.

"There is no ulterior motive," he said. "Accreditation, in my opinion, works."

College leaders have been the focus of protests throughout the process and Agrella himself has become a target as his role increases.

"I've been called names publicly and privately," he said. "There are those in the institution and outside who feel I won't be the most helpful person.

"That is their thought. I'm doing what needs to be done," he said.

Agrella said he was paid $1,000 a day plus expenses as a special trustee, but hasn't reached a compensation deal for his new assignment.

"The chancellor and I have had a couple of brief discussions," he said. "We haven't settled on a price yet."

An immediate focus is assuring potentially wary students that the school is open for businesses because enrollment is a cornerstone of income for the school. Credits earned in 2013-14 and prior are fully transferrable and not affected by the ongoing wrangling.

"Students are perfectly safe in taking classes at City College," Agrella said.

School officials are working on a marketing campaign, he said. Leaders are also awaiting a report from a state financial crisis and management team. Plans based on the report's finding will be "set in motion immediately," Agrella said.

Agrella said the new authority bestowed Monday will allow him to avoid much of the machinations that make change slow on a college campus.

He is mindful the clock is running.

"I feel a responsibility to continue to try and help them," he said.

In the history of the state's community college system, only one school has lost accreditation, according to system spokesman Paul Feist.

Compton Community College lost its accreditation in 2005 and was absorbed by El Camino Community College in Torrance. At least three special trustees have led the process for re-accreditation and it still has not been granted.

"When you lose your accreditation, there is a long process to regain it," Feist said. "You basically have to start from scratch."

And San Francisco City College's size and locale make potential mergers difficult, he said.

"Students can't just take a taxi to Marin to go to school," he said.

Despite the woes facing the school, Agrella said he remains confident the school will fix its issues by the commission's July 2014 deadline.

"I think the urgency was there last year and a tremendous amount did happen. The institution got itself into the difficulties it got itself into over the course of the last two decades," he said. "It took a long time to get into this. You don't just get out of those difficulties overnight."

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