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Accrediting panel nixes extension for troubled San Francisco college

Nancy Pelosi, other lawmakers condemn accrediting panel's actions on San Francisco college

An accrediting panel Tuesday rebuffed calls from lawmakers to grant embattled City College of San Francisco more time to fix its problems, saying it would not rescind its decision to revoke accreditation.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges reiterated its stance in a letter to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who last week urged the panel to grant an extension and a new review of the San Francisco institution.

The panel's refusal to budge in turn drew a scathing response Tuesday from Pelosi and Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who suggested the commission may need new leadership.

"The commission's letter raises serious questions about its ability to properly execute the law and make informed decisions based on ensuring high-quality institutions of learning that benefit our students, our community and our state," the trio said in a joint statement. "Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at the ACCJC."

If the school is stripped of accreditation it will also lose state and federal funding and have to close.

That would devastate the nearly 80,000 students who attend the college as well as the entire community, Pelosi argued in her letter to the panel last week.

The San Francisco lawmaker included an opinion from the Department of Education's senior director of policy coordination, Lynn B. Mahaffie, who concluded the accrediting panel has the authority to grant an extension for "good cause."

But the response from commission President Barbara Beno, Chairwoman Sherrill Amador and Vice Chairman Steve Kinsella, contested that opinion. 

The private, nonprofit panel based in Novato is part of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges and one of seven regional accrediting groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

The panel argues that it can't rescind its decision without flouting federal requirements that colleges be given no more than two years to comply with standards or lose accreditation.

Beno and the others contend that the time period actually expired in 2008, because the college was originally notified of violations in 2006.

However, the college was not issued the most serious sanction -- to "show cause" why it should retain its academic standing -- until 2012.

"Thus, ACCJC would be violating federal rules if we were to rescind the withdrawal of accreditation and provide CCSF with yet another opportunity to comply," the panel wrote.

Instead, it has proposed that City College withdraw from accreditation on its own and essentially start anew, applying for candidacy status, which would provide it with two to four years to meet standards.

Under that scenario the panel would rescind the termination, making it eligible for federal aid. But it would still require special legislation in California to qualify for state aid.

And it's far from certain if the school would be able to retain sufficient students to continue operating.

Representatives of the college could not be reached for comment.

The commission moved last year to revoke accreditation as of July, citing long-running financial and governance problems.

The panel's response detailed some of the deficiencies turned up by its evaluation teams, including failing to track the academic progress of many students and not providing sufficient student support services such as library resources and counseling.

The school failed to maintain adequate reserves and paid excessive salaries and benefits, "demonstrating a culture focused on maintaining staff and their benefits above serving students," according to the panel, which also pointed out frequent turnover of staff and administrators.

The commission acknowledged that City College has made progress addressing many of the problems, but noted that the school itself says it needs at least a year more to reach full compliance.

The accrediting commission, meanwhile, has itself come under considerable scrutiny.

The July termination is on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by San Francisco's city attorney questioning the panel's political motives and procedures. The trial is scheduled to start in October. 

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