CCSF trial opens with testimony on Student Success Task Force, removal of trustees

City College of San Francisco's life hangs in the balance as the City Attorney's Office and attorneys representing the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges square off this week.

In the first day of testimony in Superior Court on Monday, city attorneys wasted no time in alleging violations of federal law, conflicts of interest and that the commission's evaluation teams lacked faculty members. The trial centers on a lawsuit filed by the City Attorney's Office alleging that the commission treated CCSF unfairly in its review process that led to the decision to revoke the school's accreditation.

“This case is about fairness,” Deputy City Attorney Yvonne R. Mere said in her opening argument. “The ACCJC deprived City College of San Francisco of a fair and just evaluation process.”

Last year, the commission notified CCSF that its accreditation would be revoked in July 2014, which would effectively force the school to close. A judge has previously issued an injunction blocking ACCJC from revoking CCSF's accreditation until the trial's conclusion. The school remains open.

In Monday's trial proceedings, much acrimony swirled around the state's decision to wrest control of CCSF from the school's democratically elected board of trustees, which makes policy and financial decisions for the college.

The board was disbanded when the college was notified in July 2013 of the decision to revoke its accreditation. The state community college Board of Governors appointed Special Trustee Robert Agrella in the trustees' place, a controversial move detractors say deprived the school of democracy.

When state Community College Chancellor Brice Harris took the witness stand, he told Judge Curtis Karnow that ACCJC President Barbara Beno swayed him to compel the Board of Governors to disempower the board of trustees.

“She said she was fearful the college could lose its accreditation,” Harris told the city attorneys. “She believed the state takeover was the only way the college could retain its accreditation.”

In declaration under penalty of perjury, Harris said the two met several times to discuss strategies to save the college. Particularly convincing, he said, was an email she sent after the Board of Governors removed the trustees from power.

“Beautiful job,” she wrote. “I think generally the news is letting people know the college may survive, with the right leadership.”

Harris served on the accrediting commission in 2006, and worked with Beno previously. He also testified to data on the Student Success Score Card, which demonstrates more students graduate from CCSF than the statewide average.

But in his cross-examination, ACCJC attorney Andrew Sclar asserted the data demonstrating the college's strong academics had nothing to do with accreditation requirements.

“With regard to the [Student Success Data], what accreditation standard does that relate to?” Sclar asked.

“I don't know the answer to that,” Harris answered. “The standards measure success of students.”

“You can't say which one?” Sclar asked. “That's correct,” Harris answered.

In his declaration, Harris said that if he knew the ACCJC was going to revoke CCSF's accreditation he would not have followed through with disempowering the board of trustees. Since the decision was made, state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to limit the state's ability to remove locally elected boards was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

After the day's action ended, ACCJC attorney Kenneth Keller said he didn't interpret Harris' testimony as a condemnation of the ACCJC's actions.

“That wasn't my take away,” he said. “He changed his mind after the fact now that the case is in trial.”

The day also focused much on the Student Success Task Force, a group convened in 2011 to find ways to re-focus the 112 California community colleges toward certificate-earning students and students intending to transfer to four-year colleges. Many students are left out of that narrowly focused community college mission, witnesses testified.

“Over the years, we've looked for ways to serve all students, not just those looking to be succeeding or advancing in colleges,” Alisa Messer, former president of faculty union American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, said on the witness stand.

The City Attorney's Office alleges the ACCJC lobbied with the state to support the Student Success Task Force in 2012, which it argues shows the commission's support for narrowing the community college's mission. The ACCJC's bias is demonstrated because CCSF was on the other side of that fight, the City Attorney's Office alleges.

On the witness stand, Richard Hansen, who reluctantly served on that task force, said its mission flew directly in the face of California's Master Plan of Higher Education.

“Under the master plan, we need to be the receptor of everyone that can't get into University of California and California State University [schools],” he said. “We take all comers.”

Students present at the trial were a testament to that mission. Bob Damron, 71, said he took his first CCSF class in 1962 at the college's Ocean Avenue Campus.

White-haired and enthusiastic, Damron said he just earned his real estate certification at CCSF this year, and considers himself a lifelong learner. He still takes classes, along with his spouse, Randolf Damron.

“It's for my personal knowledge,” he said, with a smile.

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