City College ruling due in January

A San Francisco Superior Court judge said Tuesday¬†he will rule in January on whether to overturn a regional agency’s termination of accreditation for City College of San Francisco.

Judge Curtis Karnow spoke at the start of closing arguments in the trial of a lawsuit filed by City Attorney Dennis Herrera against the western regional branch of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

The lawsuit claims the Novato-based commission violated the state’s Unfair Competition Law by using illegal and unfair procedures when it decided last year to revoke City College’s accreditation. Karnow heard five days of testimony in the non-jury trial in October and took the case under submission after presiding over three hours of closing arguments today.

Karnow asked questions of both sides, but did not indicate how he plans to rule. He said he will issue his decision next month as a proposed ruling, after which both sides will have 15 days to respond and suggest changes. Karnow will issue a final decision sometime after that, and that ruling can be appealed to the state Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

Herrera filed the lawsuit on behalf of the people of California. City College itself is not a party in the case.

Among other claims, the lawsuit contends the commission had a conflict of interest because ACCJC President Barbara Beno’s husband served on an evaluation committee; that the committee had too few academic members; and that the commission failed to give the college adequate notice and opportunity to respond to the alleged deficiencies.

Deputy City Attorney Sara Eisenberg told Karnow Tuesday:

“The evidence has shown that City College did not get a fair evaluation. … There is no reason to terminate City College as a result of a process that was unfair and unlawful.”

Herrera has contended loss of accreditation would be a “death sentence” because City College would lose state and federal funding. Beno’s husband, Peter Crabtree, is the dean of career and technical education at Laney College in Oakland.

Eisenberg argued that his membership on a 2012 evaluation committee created an actual conflict of interest because if City College closed, some students would be likely to transfer to Laney, the only other Bay Area community college accessible by BART.

Crabtree’s marriage to Beno created an additional appearance of conflict of interest, she contended. Commission attorney Kenneth Keller argued there was no evidence of unfairness or bias in the evaluation and that the 19 commissioners were carrying out their duty:

“It is their job to ensure that the institutions that fall in their purview meet the accreditation standards. The college did not meet the standards.”

The commission’s July 2013 decision cited alleged problems with financial accountability, institutional governance and compliance with standards for instructional programs and student support services as the reasons for revoking accreditation.

The termination was originally due to take effect on July 31 of this year, but the college has remained open because in January, Karnow issued a preliminary injunction keeping the accreditation in place until the lawsuit is resolved.

Since then, the commission has offered the college a chance to apply to participate in a newly created process known as restoration, which would give the college two more years to meet the standards. The commission is due to decide in January whether to accept the college’s application.

Keller argued there is no need for a court to overturn the commission’s decision because the restoration process would give City College a reprieve.

But Eisenberg contended the restoration process would not be a fair remedy because there is no appeal from the final outcome of that effort and successful restoration would require 100 percent compliance with all standards, instead of the “substantial compliance” normally expected of community colleges.

She asked Karnow to overturn the commission’s decision and allow a new evaluation. Karnow commented:

“It’s little peculiar that the college is not a party to this case. The college isn’t here to tell us whether that’s something they want or not.”

In a cover letter to a self-evaluation report submitted to the commission in October by City College as part of its restoration application, Chancellor Arthur Tyler said the 100 percent requirement:

“is an unusually high level of compliance for an institution, but City College is committed to complying with the restoration process. …¬†Everyone at City College is dedicated to completing the recovery of the college, meeting all the eligibility requirements and standards and ultimately having ACCJC reaffirm accreditation.”