By Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle Education Reporter
January is a crucial month for City College of San Francisco. The commission trying to revoke its accreditation voted privately this week on whether to grant the college two more years to comply with standards, and could announce its decision at the end of its three-day meeting Friday in Sacramento — or delay the announcement for days or weeks. Students, faculty and education officials are also waiting anxiously to learn whether a judge will uphold the commission’s original decision that City College should lose its accreditation and be shut down, or whether he’ll side with the city of San Francisco, which sued the commission and is asking the judge to toss out the negative judgment on grounds that the evaluation process was flawed. Right now, it’s all up in the air. But like a chess game, each move affects the other. At stake is the future of City College, a school of nearly 80,000 full- and part-time students that serves as a bridge to the middle class for thousands of low-income people who rely on it to learn a trade or transfer to a university. Its accreditation status has been in limbo since July 2012. Yet much of that uncertainty will be resolved this month. “People are very concerned,” said Tim Killikelly, president of the faculty union at City College. “They’re anxious about all of the uncertainty in the air, about what will happen in the court case, what the judge will do, and what will happen with the accreditation commission.”
At the California Community College chancellor’s office, officials initially backed the commission but have since criticized it as overly harsh. Now they, too, are awaiting this month’s decisions. “We’re very optimistic,” said Paul Feist, a spokesman for state Chancellor Brice Harris. “The college has made tremendous progress over the past two years and has entered a phase of stability and sustained improvement. We are prepared to respond to whatever decisions are handed down by either the court or the commission.” In the simplest scenario, the ruling from San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow would come first. In that case, whatever Karnow decides — that City College gets a reprieve or that it doesn’t — would set in motion the next steps. If he hands the victory to San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and rules that the evaluation process was flawed and invalid, expect to hear cheering from students and other college advocates up and down the state. In that case, the judge could order the commission to perform a fresh evaluation of the college, and the question of a two-year extension for City College would be moot. The accrediting commission could also appeal that decision, and the legal battle would go on. If Karnow upholds the revocation — which was to take effect last July 31 — then the next move would be up to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
Funding at stake
A court victory for the commission would give it the power to revoke City College’s accreditation immediately. Through their attorneys and testimony of their president, Barbara Beno, the 19-member commission has argued that it has the right to revoke the college’s accreditation. Without that seal of approval, the college could receive no public funding and would be forced to close. Or the commission could announce that it will grant City College two more years to comply with all accrediting standards. But that’s no sure bet. The college had to apply for the extension, and the decision depends on whether the commission believes the school has a reasonable chance of coming into compliance within two years. The hitch is that the commission has said it would revoke accreditation if the school were even slightly out of compliance at the end of two years — and would allow no appeal. But suppose the commission announces its decision before Karnow reveals his verdict. Conceivably, a decision to extend time for City College could influence the judge’s decision and give him a helpful way out of a sticky legal dilemma : If he finds for City College, he is in the position of inserting the court in an accrediting decision. If he finds for the commission, he could have a hand in shutting down an educational treasure and interrupting the education of tens of thousands of students. He may consider the two-year extension to be a safer middle ground. Neither the faculty nor the state chancellor’s spokesman were willing to speculate on whether Karnow would factor that issue into his legal judgment.
Under the two-year extension, City College would be placed on restoration status, a new option that the commission reluctantly established last spring at the urging of the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the commission but cannot overrule it. Although Beno, the commission’s president, initially opposed extending the deadline for “a college near death,” she later called it “a genuine opportunity for the college to get its house in order” and said the commission “is absolutely committed to giving CCSF and the possible restoration status a fair review.” But faculty still don’t like it. “There’s no right to appeal — and it’s not clear what ‘full compliance’ really means, which is part of the problem,” said Killikelly, the union president. However, he acknowledged, “If you’re asking me if it’s better to close the school down or keep it open, clearly it’s better to keep the college open.” Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: nasimov@ sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NanetteAsimov