Judge issues preliminary injunction to keep CCSF open

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From left, CCSF student Ariel Hiller, faculty member Tarik Farrar, and Trustee Rafael Mandelman speak at Palomar College. CCSF teams are fanning out around the state, talking about the situation at their college and how the out-of-control accreditation agency created it. Justin Van Bibber photo

"Incalculable harm” if he didn't do so

February 11, 2014—The members of the San Francisco Community College Federation of Teachers, AFT 2121, have traveled a long hard path defending their institution, their students, fair accreditation, and their jobs over the last several months, and they’re not out of the woods yet. But things look better today than they did last summer when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) issued the stunning, inappropriate, and illegal order to disaccredit CCSF on July 3.

Since that ugly day AFT 2121 has organized support from key elected officials, filed a lawsuit against ACCJC, fought off the worst demands of the school’s revolving door administration for take-backs in bargaining, went to Washington D.C. to testify at the Department of Education and talk with members of Congress, educated reporters on the issues and turned around media coverage, received a great preliminary legal victory, and is spreading the word to other colleges with in-person visits by teams of faculty, students, and trustees.

Not bad for a college and faculty union written off as dead by the rogue accreditation agency last year.

Preliminary injunction

The biggest recent news is that after hearings on December 26 and January 2 in San Francisco, Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow granted a preliminary injunction to keep CCSF open until the conclusion of the trial to determine whether the ACCJC acted in an unfair and illegal manner in sanctioning and disaccrediting the college.

The judge granted the injunction request on the basis of the "incalculable harm" that would be inflicted on the students, faculty, employees, and broader community if he did not do so. He denied moves by the ACCJC attempting to dismiss the suits.

The requests for preliminary injunction from CFT, AFT 2121, and the City Attorney of San Francisco asked the judge to ensure the school would remain open as long as the trial proceeds, and the judge agreed that it was probably going to be after July 2014—the date set by ACCJC for closure—before the trial concludes.

Temporary injunctive relief doesn't indicate any final decisions, and doesn't decide whether CCSF will get reaccredited. Granting an injunction depends on the judge's view whether the plaintiffs would suffer harm, and how much, if such an injunction were not granted. The judge was clear about the harm that would result if CCSF were to close: "Those consequences would be catastrophic," he said, to students foremost, but also to faculty, college employees, and the San Francisco economy.

Picking up important support

Even before the judge issued his injunction, the game was changing. At a forum hosted by congresswomen Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo at City College's main campus on November 7, hundreds of students and faculty heard both issue assurances that City College would not close. State Senator Jim Beall and state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano also spoke, and AFT 2121 president Alisa Messer, CFT president Joshua Pechthalt, San Jose-Evergreen AFT local president David Yancey, along with students, CCCI president Rich Hansen, and Chancellor Ron Galatolo of the San Mateo CCD.

Ammiano and Beall promised to write legislation. Various bills are in the works. Among them is one to hold CCSF harmless for the financial damage inflicted on it by the ACCJC's sanctions; Ammiano has already announced a bill to prevent the state Board of Governors from deposing elected trustees, as it did in San Francisco; and another proposes to make ACCJC more transparent and accountable.

In January Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi visited the Chinatown campus of CCSF to hold a press conference, during which she too slammed the ACCJC decision and vowed to keep the college open.

2121 goes to Washington

In mid-December six faculty members, seven students, and CFT president Pechthalt traveled to Washington D.C. to testify at a public hearing held by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which oversees reauthorization of accrediting agencies for the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of the hearing was for the NACIQI to evaluate its staff's recommendation that the ACCJC receive continued recognition as an accrediting agency for just one year, contingent upon coming into compliance with a number of standards that the ACCJC has violated. The Department has not yet issued its decision.

While in D.C., the faculty and students also met with members of the California congressional delegation, sharing information and providing details about ACCJC's violations of accrediting norms and law during its review of CCSF. Messer, Pechthalt, and AFT president Randi Weingarten met with outgoing Congressman George Miller.

Impact on bargaining

In addition to defending CCSF against the ACCJC's illegal actions—a task declined by the administration, which is proceeding with its official appeal to the ACCJC as if the entire process is legitimate—the union was forced to bargain with the administration's hired lawyers over the terms of an austerity contract, due to a plunge of 20% in student enrollment that followed the accreditation sanctions, and projected revenue losses to the district as a result.

Ironically, the month before ACCJC issued its disaccreditation decision, the CCSF Board of Trustees, thanks to a parcel tax passed by 73% of San Francisco voters, approved a balanced budget. Thus the current financial crisis of the college is now due solely to ACCJC's sanctions and student reaction to the negative publicity around it.

The union leadership insisted as a condition of bargaining that members be allowed to attend and observe the sessions. Scores turned out. "It really energized our folks, and got a lot of them actively involved," said Messer.

The administration sang a tune with one note to most of the faculty's negotiations proposals: "We can't do that because of the ACCJC." The administration's negotiators attempted but failed to reverse major gains won over the years in part-timer equity, including pro-rata pay and health benefits. The union also turned back a pernicious proposal that would have eliminated any minimum class size, allowing administrators to cancel or consolidate classes of any size for virtually any reason. The union, however, reluctantly accepted a pay cut of 4% below 2007 levels.

Bargaining footnote: in a supremely tone-deaf move, the administration let slip its intent to raise top administrative salaries by 19% in January. Astonished faculty called a demonstration, media coverage did not present the administration in a favorable light, and the plan was rescinded for "further discussion."

Speaker bureau

Starting in late October, 2121 has been sending teams to other college districts to talk about what has happened in San Francisco and what the implications are for faculty and fair accreditation across the state. So far four colleges have hosted forums, with four more scheduled over the next two months. A team typically comprises a faculty member, a student, and a trustee.

Palomar College instructor Theresa Laughlin said of the event at her college on January 28, "It was fabulous—standing room only in a room that held 100 people. It was about evenly divided among faculty, students, and administrators. Three of our trustees came out, another one from Mira Costa, and presidents of both districts. The presenters did a great job. One of our administrators told me afterward that what concerned him about ACCJC was that maybe City College needed to be sanctioned, but certainly not put on 'show cause,' and to be given only eight months to fix things—that was unconscionable."

Looking back at the road from July, Messer reflects, "No one can doubt that we've come an incredibly long way. Our union local is more organized, and there's a lot more clarity in the public about what actually happened, and what a bad actor ACCJC has been. We have definitely changed the narrative. One of the most satisfying changes has been to finally see the broad recognition that the education we offer our students at City College is excellent, and not in question."

CFT Community College Perspective, February 2014

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