In a daylong hearing in San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday — which included the reading of arcane federal regulations, references to the BART strike and a recess order called by the judge after audience outbursts — two teams of lawyers sparred over the future of City College of San Francisco.
The hearing itself was only a skirmish, a request by the City Attorney's Office and American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 for a preliminary injunction in their case against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. They say the commission did not give CCSF a fair shake before it announced the school would lose its accreditation in July 2014 absent major reforms.
No one was given any answers, though. Instead, Judge Curtis Karnow walked out of the courtroom at day's end without giving either side any indication of what he will decide or when.
The hearing was one of the many confusing and convoluted facets of the fight that has erupted over CCSF's future, after its accreditation was threatened last summer and its elected board was striped of power and replaced by a special trustee.
The school, which remains open and accredited, is not a party in the case.
Instead of directly attacking the arguments of union and city attorneys, ACCJC lawyers put more weight into the fact that the two groups had no legal right to sue for injunctive relief. Only CCSF does, the commission contended, and the college has not done so. What's more, they argued that the court had no jurisdiction in the case since the ACCJC was governed by federal law, specifically the U.S. Department of Education's accrediting process.
“You are basically saying they don't have a right to bring an action,” said Karnow.
ACCJC lawyer Andrew Sclar, referring to the accreditation process, replied, “The people do not have a stake in that process decision.”
Aside from issues of whether the parties had standing to sue, the hearing delved into what harm action by the court would do to the accrediting body, students and teachers.
“What will happen without an action of the court?” Karnow asked of the plaintiffs.
Students and teachers, who the plaintiffs argued they represent and would have no other venue for relief, have already been harmed by the threatened closure. An injunction putting that closure on hold would reassure everyone that CCSF is not going anywhere until the court decides whether or not it had its due process rights taken away, said AFT lawyer Robert Bezemek.
Karnow, in reference to granting the preliminary injunction until the end of a trial, asked the plaintiffs why a trial in June, for instance, would make any difference since the outcome could in the end still lead to CCSF's closure.
When lawyers replied that most students see only headlines about a doomed school, the judge asked if he should issue an injunction “informing the public” that the school remains open.
Pushing in the other direction, Karnow asked ACCJC lawyers how pressing the “pause” button on a final decision would do any harm, and was told that it would not only impact the commission's ongoing efforts by questioning the outcome of its review and appeal, but could chill accrediting bodies around the country from doing their job.
“It's far more than stopping the accrediting commission,” said Sclar, adding that it would be an unprecedented court action that would send a message that any unsatisfied college could sue and “fool people” into thinking there is nothing wrong with CCSF.
But the day was not all taken up with arguments about the injunction. At times, it delved directly into the main issues at hand.
“Due process provided by this commission is abysmal,” said Bezemek in reference to the heart of the case, adding that “this college never knew it was facing a loss of accreditation.”
The school has few issues with the education it gives students, said Bezemek, and no evidence shows the school's financial issues impacted anyone's education.
ACCJC lawyers countered that guaranteeing a good education is predicated on guaranteeing that the school will be managed well and not go bankrupt before a student completes his or her studies.
A request by the defendants for the judge to put a stay on the case until the accreditation process is completed, and another request for the judge to drop the case altogether, have been scheduled for Monday.