Demonstrators attempt to take the future of city college into their own hands during commission trial

The accreditation saga of City College of San Francisco embarked on a new chapter yesterday as the trial against the accrediting commission threatening its existence commenced.

Dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse in support of City College and many made their way upstairs to the hearing, overflowing the courtroom with advocates for the prosecution. The crowd included union representatives, students and other community advocates — including San Francisco Supervisor David Campos.

“The purpose of the demonstration is to let people know how far we’ve come with the accreditation,” said City College Board of Trustees Vice President Anita Grier. “We took our concerns to the street, we took them to lawmakers and now we’re taking it to the court.”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges in August 2013, asserting that the commission violated fair business practices under California law. Herrera cited conflicts of interest, an unfair evaluation process and political motivations as the basis of his arguments.

Examinations of a City College faculty member, former City College vice chancellor of finance, California Community Colleges Chancellor Dr. Brice Harris and a former Student Success Task Force member brought the college’s effectiveness and financial situation under question on the opening day of the non-jury trial.

Chancellor Harris dealt the ACCJC’s defense a heavy blow from the stand when he admitted the commission’s sanction on City College was unnecessarily strong in retrospect and said he did not believe the college deserves to lose its accreditation now. He also admitted to supporting the takeover of the City College board by a special trustee only after a conversation with the president of the ACCJC.

“I think the teaching and learning at that college continues to be excellent and it gets better all the time,” Harris said in court.

The prosecution had the chancellor read off statistics from the 2012-2013 student success scorecard data of City College compared to statewide community colleges that showed San Francisco’s community college exceeded statewide averages.

Andrew Sclar, the ACCJC lawyer, focused on the financial situation at the college in 2012 and in the years leading up to it. The defense asked presiding judge Curtis Karnow not to “close his eyes” to the time the college had to fix issues prior to the sanction. He explained that evaluations are scheduled every six years and having been evaluated in 2006 City College knew ACCJC would return in 2012.

The onset of today’s trial followed a jumble of litigation including an injunction blocking the commission from shutting down City College in January until the trial concludes. The judge also denied requests from both sides for summary judgment in September.

The fight between the ACCJC and City College supporters began in July 2012 when the commission put the college on “show cause” a severe sanction which meant the college had to prove why it should not lose its accreditation. As the battle for accreditation escalated, the well being of the college—most notably its enrollment—suffered deeply.

“There’s been about a 25 percent drop in enrollment,” American Federation of Teachers 2121 President Tim Killikelly said. “There’s all these things that people believe about the school because they’re hearing rumors.”

Members of the Save CCSF Coalition expressed hope in the moments leading up to the trial. Many called Karnow “fair”, noting he had struck down the ACCJC’s prior motions to cut the trial short.

“A lot of challenges that the ACCJC has been bringing up have been struck down in court. So recent smaller rulings have been generally in favor of CCSF,” SF State student and CCSF supporter Edward Chavez said. “I think most people are hopeful that it’s going to be in the school’s favor.”

The AFT 2121 filed a separate suit against the accrediting commission and the college applied for restoration under a new ACCJC policy that could potentially buy it a couple more years to come into compliance. Notwithstanding the outcome of the city attorney’s trial, the college’s supporters are determined to continue the fight.

“There would be a revolt, it won’t lose its accreditation,” said Thea Matthews, a sociology major at City College. “One of the largest community colleges shutting down—are you serious? You know how ludicrous that would be?”

The trial is scheduled daily through Friday, at which point Karnow will decide the outcome of the case.

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