Judge orders accreditor to redo portion of San Francisco college review

SF Superior Court judge orders accreditor to redo part of city college review process

A San Francisco Superior Court injunction released Wednesday would allow -- but not force -- City College of San Francisco to seek a somewhat narrow reconsideration of a private commission's decision to revoke its accreditation.

The outcome of a lawsuit filed by San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges falls far short of what Herrera sought -- a complete do-over of the accrediting process.

But the injunction crafted by Judge Curtis E. A. Karnow lets the college go back and demand a detailed written account of accreditors' claims in mid-2013 that it fell short of standards in 10 specific areas.

Karnow ruled that the commission denied the college due process by adding those 10 areas to findings of its evaluation team without providing details. The written commission report, Karnow added in his injunction, would have to be made available to the public, barring any court order to seal portions of it.

The 80,000-student community college would then have a chance to respond and to appear before the commission. And commissioners would be compelled to reconsider the evidence and determine anew whether revocation of accreditation was in fact warranted.

Karnow had issued his temporary ruling last month.

Revocation of City College of San Francisco's accreditation -- a penalty that would almost certainly force it to close -- had been placed on hold by the litigation. But the school last month was separately granted a newly created "restoration status" under which it has two years to meet all requirements in 32 areas of noncompliance or face termination with no possible appeal.

Karnow said in his injunction that the commission "must not remove CCSF from its present restoration status nor subject CCSF to adverse consequences because CCSF chooses to follow the reconsideration procedures to which it is entitled in this Injunction."

A spokesman for the college, which was not a party to the lawsuit, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. But the school will have until next month to decide whether to pursue the process laid out by Karnow.

The Novato, Calif.-based commission, which accredits 133 schools in California, Hawaii and the Pacific, has come under fire by state auditors and state legislators for a lack of transparency and for disparate treatment of its member colleges. A separate lawsuit filed by the California Federation of Teachers that touches on similar issues is pending. 

The city's lawsuit had contended that the commission was so fraught by conflicts of interest that the entire accreditation process was tainted and the college should be given a clean slate and the right to begin anew.

Karnow disagreed.

While he did find that the commission acted unlawfully in several areas -- for example, by not including a sufficient number of academics on the City College evaluation panel -- he only saw fit to remedy one: in revoking accreditation in mid-2013, he ruled, the commission found the 10 additional deficiencies that its own evaluating team had not identified, and to which the college never had the opportunity to respond.

Had the college been given that opportunity, Karnow said, it is possible the commission could have come to a different decision on accreditation.

"We do not know if the Commissioners would have exercised their discretion differently had City College been given an opportunity to address the additional findings in writing," Karnow said in his ruling. "But we can find out -- from the Commission."

A commission spokeswoman could not be reached for comment  Wednesday.

However, attorney Ken Keller said in a statement earlier this month that the commission believed no injunction was necessary "because CCSF had opportunity to respond to all Commission findings of non-compliance through the review and appeal process. Nonetheless, we have provided suggested wording for the narrow injunction discussed in the Court’s tentative decision.”

In a statement, Herrera called the ruling "tough and thorough" for assuring the college "its right to a fair and open reconsideration process" and shielding it "from further unlawful acts from accreditors."

Tim Killikelly, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 at the city college, said he was pleased that Karnow's ruling "finalized that [the commission] broke the law."

Furthermore, he said, "The judge really went out of his way to make sure that the public was going to be able to see and hear what was going to go on in this reconsideration process…. The whole nature of the discussion around the commission would have been a lot different a lot earlier if we would have had transparency."

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