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SAN FRANCISCO -- The battle between faculty unions and an accreditor over the fate of City College of San Francisco intensified this week, just two months before the college learns whether it will be shut down.

State and local unions have filed a complaint calling for the reversal of a severe sanction slapped last year on CCSF by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which is the two-year college arm of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional accreditors. The penalty was unwarranted, according to the unions. And their voluminous complaint alleges that the accreditor's review of City College was deeply flawed, tainted by conflicts of interest and in violation of state and federal laws.

For example, Barbara Beno, the commission’s president, has played an influential role in the process, according to the document. Yet her husband, Peter Crabtree, was assigned by the commission to serve on a 17-member site review team that last year identified lingering problems at City College and recommended the sanction. Crabtree is dean of career and technical education at Laney College, a community college located in Oakland.

“The appointment of Crabtree to the team destroyed the wall which is supposed to exist between the evaluation team and the commission staff,” said the complaint, which the California Federation of Teachers and the City College chapter of the American Federation of Teachers filed with the commission on Tuesday afternoon.

In a written statement the commission declined to respond to inquiries from journalists about the complaint.

"The commission will maintain its normal practice of reviewing third party comment and communicating about that comment directly to the affected member institution," the statement said. "Further, complaints against the ACCJC are treated formally, in accordance with policy; comment from the organization or its officers is limited during this time.

The commission site team’s report, which was released in July, ignited the accreditation crisis. It found that City College has long failed to properly track student outcomes and is running dangerous budget deficits.

City College also has a balky governance system, according to the report. A total of just 39 administrators, who lack proper decision-making authority, were overseeing a college that now enrolls 85,000 students and employs 3,000 faculty and staff members. Salaries make up 92 percent of the college’s annual operating costs, compared to 86 percent at most other two-year institutions, according to a financial analysis by a state agency. And the college employs a relatively large portion of full-time professors.

The commission ruled that the college must correct a host of problems and “show cause” for why it should not lose its accreditation. In June the commission will decide if City College has made adequate progress in addressing the issues raised in the review. If it has not, the college will probably be shut down.

However, the union complaint, which was filed with the support of the national American Federation of Teachers, said the commission is “unreliable as a regional accreditor.” It argues that the commission has acted improperly in its oversight of City College and California’s other 111 community colleges.

“The flaws in ACCJC’s assessment of CCSF exemplify the flaws which generally infect the ACCJC,” the document said. Those alleged problems include “serious conflicts of interest, mischaracterization of commission and college actions so as to support unjustified sanctions, disregard of the mission of community colleges, disregard of the public policy of California, improper criteria which conflict with federal and state law and arbitrary application of ACCJC Standards.”

The faculty unions said they plan to submit a similar complaint soon to the U.S. Department of Education. They call for the accreditor to drop the show cause order and to reaffirm City College’s accreditation status. All reports and actions related to the sanction should be withdrawn, the unions said, and the commission should conduct a new review of the college.

The complaint also calls for the commission to lose its own federal recognition, which is up for renewal this year by the Education Department.

Flash Point

The City College crisis has dumped fuel on simmering anger about the accreditor among faculty unions and some administrators at California community colleges. Some say the commission is overly antagonistic.

Perhaps nowhere is that feeling more common than at CCSF, where a commitment to activism and open-door admissions run deep.

“I believe there is very widespread anger, frustration and fear” about the commission, said Carl Friedlander, president of the California Federation of Teachers’ community college council. “The atmosphere is very bad.”

Faculty and students at the college have protested loudly about the show cause ruling. Some demonstrated around the April visit of a site team that will recommend whether to revoke the college’s accreditation.

“The distractions from protests were very real,” said Thelma Scott-Skillman, City College’s interim chancellor, during a panel discussion at last month’s annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). She said protests rose to the “level of intimidation of some team members.”

A few past and present City College administrators, as well as other observers around the state, said anger at the commission is misdirected. They said the college faces many problems, perhaps the most pressing of which is its deep financial hole. In September a state-commissioned analysis uncovered annual deficits and plenty of obligations the college can’t afford.

The budget report also found that City College’s fiscal reserves are only 1 percent of its annual budget, an assertion local union leaders dispute. That means the college is well below the state-required 5 percent reserve level, and has about three business days of money on hand.

The college is scrambling to cut salaries, and has been fighting unions to do so. That in turn has destabilized labor relations at City College, according to the complaint. Earlier this week the Board of Trustees struck a deal to cut the number of faculty department chairs and to require them to work on campus five days a week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Not all of the college’s fiscal woes are self-imposed, faculty members have said, pointing to years of state budget cuts. They also said that the commission fails to note that the college, which is one of the largest community colleges in the country, might also be one of the best.

For example, the complaint notes that the student completion rate at City College is about 56 percent, outpacing the systemwide rate of 50 percent. And CCSF students also are more likely to successfully transfer to a four-year college than are their peers at other community colleges.

City College has not received an accrediting sanction in its 50-year history. Therefore, the complaint said that even if problems identified by the site team are real, the commission should have imposed a lesser penalty, like a warning, for a first offender. Instead it skipped all the way to a sanction that could lead to the shuttering of the college.

Furthermore, faculty union anger at the commission predates the CCSF crisis, said Jeff Freitas, secretary treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers. "We've had these concerns for years."

Administrators at California community colleges have also squared off against the commission at times.

Studies have shown that the commission issues more sanctions than its peers. For example, 37 percent of California’s community colleges received a sanction from 2003 to 2008, one report found. Only 0 to 6 percent of community colleges under other regional accreditors got hit with sanctions during this same time period.

The view that the commission was overzealous contributed to a dispute a couple years ago between it and the California community college system’s former chancellor, Jack Scott. That disagreement subsided, however.

More recently, Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District, has said that the commission may have been too abrupt with the show cause ruling for CCSF. Galatolo’s nearby college might have to shoulder some of the load if City College closes. He told EdSource, a publication produced by a nonprofit education group, that the sanction should be levied only as a last resort.

Conflicts of Interest?

Accreditors are under plenty of pressure to crack down on poorly performing colleges. And some observers said perhaps others should follow the commission’s lead in being aggressive about issuing sanctions.

The union complaint, however, said the commission exceeded its authority in the CCSF review, breaking its own rules in the process, as well as state and federal laws.

Beno, who has led the commission for decade, is cited often in the 250-plus-page document. She is the focus of most of the conflict-of-interest allegations.

She wrote four public letters about the college’s progress on improvements the accreditor had recommended in 2006. Leaders of accrediting agencies often write college leaders to summarize reviews and sanctions. Those letters were considered by the site team, which recommended the stiff sanction.

Another key conflict-of-interest allegation about Beno revolves around the contentious debate over recommendations by a state task force about the community college system. The task force called for the two-year system to give priority to students who are more likely to earn credentials.

Those changes are a serious shift for a system that is fiercely committed to open access. Faculty members and students at CCSF were particularly vocal in their opposition to the policies, which they said were a challenge to the system’s historic mission. Even City College trustees weighed in with a resolution against the recommendations. And the complaint calls CCSF the “titular leader” of systemwide opposition to them.

The state’s legislature later passed a revised and somewhat toned-down version of the bill.

The heated debate over the task force report occurred mostly last year and in late 2011, around the same time the commission was scrutinizing CCSF. During this period Beno lobbied for the recommendations, according to the complaint.

Last spring Beno wrote to several state senators in support of the task force legislation, the unions said. She sent similar letters to members of the state assembly. The commission also formally backed the task force, according to the complaint, and was cited as a “key supporter” in literature from the group.

As an accreditor, the commission should be an “impartial arbiter,” the union document said, and should refrain from squaring off against its members over controversial policies. By advocating for the task force the commission violated its bylaws, state law requiring that it respect community colleges’ mission, and federal due process laws, the faculty complaint alleges.

“Having entered the public debate, and the legislative battle ground, ACCJC is the last entity that could judge CCSF impartially,” the complaint said. “ACCJC never should have entered the public debate on the mission. Having done so, the decision to issue the show cause sanction is tainted, and should be reversed."

Deficiencies and Suggestions

A commonly cited narrative about the meltdown at City College is that college officials and faculty members for six years ignored a set of problems they had been required to fix. But that story is not so simple, according to the complaint.

The commission in 2006 identified eight areas for recommended improvements at CCSF, most of which revolved around financial planning and tracking student outcomes.

Pamela Fisher, the college’s former interim chancellor, said City College failed to adequately move on those recommendations.

“From the view of our peers,” she said at the AACC meeting last month, “you had six years to do it and you didn’t.”

The college made no progress on three of the recommendations, according to the commission.  

However, the recommendations were suggested “quality improvements,” the complaint said, that were subsequently referred to by the commission as “deficiencies.” And semantics are important, according to the document, because the commission cannot legally enforce its suggestions with the same vigor as its standards for accreditation eligibility.

“It is this sort of schizophrenic interpretation of the standards which has prompted the avalanche of sanctions against California community colleges,” it said.

One thing is for sure: City College faces a legitimate threat of being shut down. That move would be an unprecedented catastrophe in higher education’s modern history.

Scott-Skillman, who took the helm in October, discussed that possibility at the recent AACC meeting. She described a closure report, submitted in March, in which college officials detailed how they would help students transfer to other colleges from a shuttered City College.

Preparing the report was the hardest task of her career, Scott-Skillman said. “This has been a rude awakening for the entire district.”

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