Yvonne Mere, deputy city attorney, presents the case against the ACCJC
Yvonne Mere, deputy city attorney, presents the case against the ACCJC

By Tim Redmond

OCTOBER 27, 2014 – The City College accreditation trial got off to a dramatic start today with state Community College Chancellor Brice Harris admitting that he only called for a special trustee to take over the college after a conversation with the head of the ACCJC, who convinced him that suspending local control was the only way the school could survive.

Harris also testified that by all normal measures of academic achievement, City College was above the state average and that the classroom instruction is exceptional.

“The teaching and learning at the college continues to be excellent and gets better all the time,” he testified.

And he said that he doesn’t think that the accrediting panel should have invoked its strongest sanction. City College, despite some very serious problems, should remain open and accredited, he told the court.

ACCJC President Barbara Beno won’t take the stand until later this week, but from the start, she was a key focus of attention. Deputy City Attorney Yvonne Mere gave the opening statement, and made it clear that the accrediting decision was driven in part by politics.

“Beno has no role on the commission, but she played a big role in the decision-making,” Mere said.

The accrediting panel, she said, “acted unfairly when it chose to evaluate City College when it was embroiled in a debate over the future of community colleges” in California.

The political backdrop loomed over the proceedings, and will get even more intense as more evidence is introduced.  In essence, City Attorney Dennis Herrera is arguing that Beno was driven by a desire to change the mission of community colleges away from lifelong learning and toward degree-completion programs.

City College has always offered a wide range of noncredit classes for San Franciscans of all ages and skill levels. It also offers job-training classes for people who aren’t necessarily seeking to transfer to a four-year institution.

Beno has been outspoken in support of legislation that would force two-year colleges to change their missions. As Alisa Messer, a City College teacher and union leader, testified, virtually everyone at City College, from the College Board to the administration, students, and labor joined together to fight the plan that Beno wanted approved.

“I think this is fundamentally the issue here,” Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, told me during a break in the trial. “This is about narrowing the mission of City College. And the ACCJC came in like a sledgehammer to do that.”

Explained Mere: “City College voiced opposition, vociferously – and the ACCJC took notice.”

The city attorney’s case focuses on a series of flaws in the accreditation panel’s work, including conflicts of interest in the selection of the panel that did the site visit. One of the members of that panel was married to Beno – although City College officials didn’t become aware of that fact until later.

In fact, members of the commission itself were selected by a process that violated federal law, Mere argued. The ACCJC, under pressure from federal officials, has since changed its bylaws – but hasn’t removed members selected under what it now recognized as an inappropriate process.

The ACCJC lawyer, Andrew Sclar, focused in his opening statement almost entirely on financial and governance issues. He said (as many critics of public-sector unions tend to say) that City College offered too generous an employee retirement plan and had no way to pay for it. A 2012 Fiscal Crisis Management Team from the state found that the school’s finance were “in perilous condition” and “that gave rise to the commission decision” on accreditation.

He said very little about educational quality.

But both Messer and Peter Goldstein, who was the City College vice chancellor in charge of finance, put the fiscal crisis in a bit of perspective.

Goldstein testified that after the recession of 2008, the school was hit with severe state funding cuts – and to make things worse, the state would delay the payments it made, leaving City College with a negative bank balance. The school had to borrow money from the City of San Francisco to pay its bills while it waited for the delayed state money to arrive.

City College instituted a hiring freeze, Goldstein said, and the administrative staff started to shrink by attrition. Then there were class cancellations and pay cuts.

The solution that the school came up with was to seek new revenue, Messer said. “This was the Great Recession. But we turned around and passed Prop. A [a city measure allocating tax money to City College] and Prop. 30 [a state tax hike]. We found solutions to the financial problem.”

Harris was, in many ways, the star witness for Herrera’s team.  The plaintiffs presented data showing that by every academic metric that the state uses to evaluate community colleges, CCSF is above the California average. The quality of education – which is, after all, the basic point of a college – was never in question, he said.

So why did he push to suspend the local board and put in a state trustee with special powers? Because, he implied, Barbara Beno told him to.

Harris said he initially took the ACCJC report “at face value.” And his statements to the press at the time reflected that: Harris was harsh in his critique of City College and said the school was, basically, a basket case.

He testified that he spoke to Beno, and became convinced after that conversation that City College would lose accreditation and close unless he imposed a special trustee.

And after reviewing all the data, he said, “I believe today that the action to terminate was stronger than it needed to be.”

Sclar pushed Harris hard on cross-examination, reminding him that in 2012 and 2013, he was critical of City College, its administration, and its financial solvency. But he repeatedly said that his “extreme” recommendation to impose a special trustee was based entirely on his belief – after talking to Beno – “that it was the only pathway to saving the college.”

And after reviewing all the current and past data, he said, “I don’t believe the college should have its accreditation terminated.”