SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The City College of San Francisco will keep its accreditation until a commission explains in writing all of its reasons for decertifying the school, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
City College was denied a fair hearing before the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges decided in 2013 to terminate its accreditation, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow ruled.
Karnow said the due process violation violated California's Unfair Competition Law, and City College deserves another shot at addressing the commission's findings.
But Karnow did not vacate the commission's termination decision, an action which he said would undermine the federal accreditation process.
In a tentative 73-page ruling issued Friday morning, Karnow said that the commission "did not provide a detailed written report that clearly identified all deficiencies in City College's compliance with accreditation standards."
His order rolls the calendar back to June 2013, when the certification panel voted overwhelmingly to terminate City College's accreditation.
"The Commission must specify in writing its bases for finding deficiencies in its 2013 termination decision that were not identified in the 2013 Evaluation Team Report," Karnow said.
He said he cannot order City College to draft written responses, because City College is not a party to the case, but if the school does reply, the commission must consider the responses.
Further, the commission must "reconsider its termination decision," but Karnow left that decision in the hands of the commission.
The commission should have given City College the opportunity to respond in writing to deficiency findings, Karnow said.
"The reporting and notice violations do undermine the fairness of the process within the meaning of the common law fair procedure doctrine," his tentative decision states.
"These deficiencies may have been insignificant, because other deficiencies were found and the commission was entitled to terminate City College's accreditation based on any deficiency. But they may not have been insignificant."
Karnow said the commissioners might have voted differently had they read complete written responses from the school.
The court case started in 2013 , soon after the commission made the decision to decertify, and San Francisco sued the commission on behalf of the people of California.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera said then that the commission had been driven to disqualify the school by legislative and philosophical differences over the purpose of California community colleges. He claimed that conflicts of interest violated the state's business and professions code.
In January 2014, Karnow preliminarily enjoined the revocation of accreditation, calling the consequences of closing the school before a trial could measure the city's claims "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," his January 2014 order stated .
In Friday's ruling, Karnow said that Herrera was making an unprecedented use of California's Unfair Competition Law: "It appears the UCL has never previously been used to challenge an accreditation decision."
But Karnow said that San Francisco had proven that the team that evaluated City College in 2013 had too few academics and that there were inadequate policies to guard against the appearance of conflicts of interest - two points that Deputy City Attorney Sara Eisenberg stressed during the five-day bench trial's closing arguments .
While those findings do not require court-ordered relief, Karnow said that City College does deserve relief for the commission's hampering the institution's "ability to respond in 2013 to the bases for termination."
"The scope of the injunction I issue must be commensurate, or proportionate, to that specific liability," Karnow wrote.
"This relief directly accounts for the significant unlawful practices I have found, it pays attention the extensive federal regulations which surround the accreditation process, and it respects, as it must and as all parties agree, the fact that under federal law it is ACCJC [the commission], and not this court, which exercises its discretion with respect to accreditation issues."
Karnow's order invites both San Francisco and the commission to write a proposed version of the final judgment based on the rulings in Friday's tentative decision. They have until Feb. 3 to object or comment on the scope of the proposed injunction.
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