Midway through the week-long trial of a lawsuit filed by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera against an accreditation commission that trying to disaccredit City College of San Francisco, San Francisco Assemblymember Philip Ting spoke out against the use of state funds to pay the commission’s legal costs.
Ting said today that he is “extraordinarily concerned” that the state has given the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges a “blank check” for legal fees accumulated by the commission.
The assemblymember said that last year the state worked hard to get community colleges an extra $100 million in funding, but that the ACCJC has already begun charging its member colleges for the legal fees incurred during the lawsuit, which threatens to take a good chunk of money away from educational programs.
He said “the state could be on the hook for millions and millions of dollars of legal fees” accrued by the ACCJC.
If member colleges don’t pay, Ting said, they run the risk of losing accreditation.
He said his office would address the issue next year either through the introduction of new legislation or by reintroducing action during the budget process in order to stop giving the commission a “blank check” to fund “frivolous lawsuits.”
Bouchra Simmons, a single mother who attends CCSF and the school’s associated students council president for the downtown campus, said CCSF has helped her learn English and pursue her dreams.
She said, however, that she and her fellow students are concerned whether their college will stay open. She said they are living “in fear and limbo.”
Tim Killikell, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, which represents the CCSF Faculty Union, said that although the threat of disaccreditation has had a very negative impact on the school’s reputation, he assured the community that “We are open, we are accredited, and if you come to City College you’re going to get a good education.”
The lawsuit filed by Herrera on behalf of the people of California last year claims the commission violated the state’s Unfair Competition Law by using unfair, biased and illegal procedures when it decided to terminate the college’s accreditation in 2013.
Herrera alleges that committee and a follow-up committee in 2013 had too few academic members, as opposed to administrators; that the commission failed to provide the college with due process to respond to its charges; and that it was biased against the college’s mission of “open access” to the community.
The lawsuit also alleges a perceived or actual conflict of interest in the appointment of Commission President Barbara Beno’s husband, Laney College Career and Technical Education Dean Peter Crabtree, to a 2012 committee evaluating CCSF.
Herrera is seeking a court order to not only overturn the decision to terminate the college’s accreditation but to require the Novato-based commission to start a new evaluation process.
Among the main witnesses who have taken the stand in the trial so far are the commission’s president Barbara Beno, who said Tuesday and again today that she did not provide the City College of San Francisco with additional time to respond to perceived deficiencies during their accreditation process, which threatens to close their doors.
Herrera’s team asked Beno Tuesday, “Subsequent to the time that the commission convened and voted to terminate City College, did it afford City College additional time to respond in writing to the perceived deficiencies before finalizing the termination?”
“No,” Beno said under oath and before San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow.
She also said she and her husband didn’t speak about the accreditation of CCSF.
On Monday, CCSF English professor and faculty union leader Alisa Messer, was called to the stand and said she was shocked to learn following the evaluation of the college that Beno’s husband was on the committee.
Messer said it was hard for her to believe that “there was no conversation at the dinner table or anywhere else and that the decision was independent.”
Another witness who took the stand Tuesday was David Bergeron, the vice president of secondary education at the Washington D.C.-based educational think tank Center for American Progress.
Bergeron previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the Department of Education, where he worked in various roles for more than three decades.
He said the accreditation process has flaws, but is designed to assure the public that they are getting a quality education.
But he said he believes the accreditation system “leaves broad latitude for accreditors” because of the complexity and the diversity of U.S. institutions.
Bergeron said that this year $135 billion was dispersed in financial aid for students in the U.S. and that the accreditation process is the main evaluation standing between schools receiving or not receiving those funds.
On Monday, California community colleges Chancellor Brice Harris testified that he believed the commission’s decision to terminate the accreditation of CCSF “was not an appropriate action.”
Sandra Serrano, the Chancellor of Kern Community College District took the stand today and discussed how she, as the chair of the team sent to review CCSF, organized the review of the school and then communicated the findings of her team to the commission.
The termination of CCSF’s accreditation was originally due to take effect on July 31, but in January, Karnow issued a preliminary injunction suspending the termination until the completion of trial proceedings.
The commission in court filings has denied that it was prejudiced or unfair and contended the decision to withdraw the accreditation was “absolutely correct” and was based on “enormous problems facing CCSF.”
The group’s 2013 decision cited alleged problems with financial accountability, institutional governance and compliance with standards for instructional programs and student support services.
In addition to the preliminary injunction granted by Karnow, the college received a second reprieve in July when the commission granted its application to seek a newly created status known as “restoration” while it attempts to meet accrediting standards.
A new evaluation team is scheduled to visit the college the week of Nov. 17 and the commission is expected to decide in January whether to grant the status, which could last for up to two years.
The commission has argued in a brief filed with Karnow that the new process gives the college the second chance for evaluation that it wanted, and that further court orders are unnecessary.
But the city lawyers contend the restoration option puts the college in a precarious position because the commission’s future decision can’t be appealed and because the college would have to be in full compliance with all accreditation standards, rather than the normal, substantial
Ting said colleges undertaking the restoration process are treated unfairly because they are held to a higher standard than every other institution in the state.
Karnow is hearing the case without a jury and is expected to issue a written decision sometime after the close of the five-day trial.
Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News