(CN) - A California judge has slammed the brakes on plans to yank accreditation from one of the Golden State's biggest community colleges.
City College of San Francisco will remain open while a jury sorts out claims that political bias and procedural flaws led to a decision by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges to revoke its accreditation.
Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow's Thursday order said that a trial, not yet scheduled, would probably not conclude by the end of July when the revocation would be finalized.
"Given the fact that the balance of harm tips sharply, strikingly, indeed overwhelmingly, in favor of the interest represented by the city attorney, this is enough to authorize preliminary relief," the order states.
Karnow issued "a preliminary injunction barring the commission from finalizing their disaccreditation decision pending further order of the court or final adjudication of the merits in this case."
The city filed suit this past August, soon after the commission revocation decision, claiming the commission had stacked the panel that reviewed the school with opponents, including the husband of commission president Barbara Beno.
Herrera claims that the commission was driven by a legislative and philosophical debate with City College over the purpose of California community colleges, and that the revocation decision was punishment for a fight City College students and faculty waged against commission-backed legislation that they called "highly objectionable."
As an example, Herrera noted that the commission allegedly wanted SB 1456, the Seymour-Campbell Student Success Act of 2012, to allow fee waivers only for students who could indentify their education and career goals at enrollment.
The conflict of interest that resulted was a violation California's Business and Professions Code, or unfair competition law (UCL), he said.
Herrera asked Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow in November to stop the commission from going through with the revocation, scheduled for July 31, 2014, until a jury could hear his allegations that the commission evaluated City College's accreditation even as it fought the school.
Herrera's request for a preliminary injunction said the school had more than 80,000 students before the commission's revocation decision, but the threat of disaccreditation has discouraged students from enrolling. This exacerbated a budget crisis at the institution, as state funding relies on enrollment numbers.
Judge Karnow's order acknowledged the risk.
"There is some evidence supporting what I have termed 'uncertainty harm,' that is, harm generated by the uncertainty whether the college will be unaccredited as of July 31, 2014," he wrote.
While it is unclear whether the "looming loss of accreditation" caused enrollment to decline, "there is no question, however, of the harm that will be suffered if the commission follows through and terminates accreditation as of July 2014," the order states. "Those consequences would be catastrophic. Without accreditation the College would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic."
Karnow also said that injunctive relief was worthwhile since Herrera shows "some probability" that he will prevail. It is important, however, that the school and the commission work together to address the underlying issues that led to the crisis, he added.
Poor staffing decisions and sub-par financial management, not the quality of the education, lie at the heart of the commission's complaints.
The American Federation of Teachers had wanted a broader injunction that would revoke the commission's July 2012 show-cause order that got the disaccreditation process rolling.
In rejecting that motion, Karnow admitted that invalidating the commission's decisions back to 2012 would "probably guarantee more students the ability to complete their studies, and more time for faculty to receive pay."
"Of course, that injunction would not ensure the college stays in operation, and if the financial situation is as dire as some of the reports suggest, the college might close anyway at some point," he added. "Nor would this second type of injunction remove the cloud of uncertainty over the college's accreditation."
The parties plan to meet at the end of the month for a court-ordered conference on settlement efforts and potential schedules for a trial.
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