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Faculty sues to keep California's biggest community college open

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Teachers at City College of San Francisco on Tuesday sued to block regulators from taking steps to shutter California's largest community college, which was stripped of its accreditation earlier this year.

The California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers filed the lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court on behalf of the 78-year-old college's 1,500 instructors.

It seeks an injunction to stop the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges from shutting the college, which has 80,000 students. The commission voted in July to stop accrediting the school next year, citing a lack of financial accountability and other longstanding problems.

Lost accreditation would trigger funding cuts that would shutter the school, San Francisco's only community college, with nine campuses, 60 academic degrees and 140 vocational programs, from nursing to culinary arts and aircraft mechanics.

"We cannot have the American dream alive in San Francisco if City College closes, and that's why this fight is really about the soul of the city," San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

The suit accuses regulators of violating conflict of interest laws, shredding public documents, barring students and faculty from public meetings and undermining the college's elected board of trustees.

Teachers and civic leaders describe the school as critical for the city's economic viability and pivotal for the upward mobility of a diverse cross-section of San Francisco residents. They blame state budget cuts for the bulk of the college's woes.

Regulators cited concerns about the college's financial accountability, administrative leadership and long-term liabilities when they voted to pull its accreditation as of July 31, 2014.

Tom Lane, a spokesman for the commission, said he could not comment on the suit. But the commission issued a statement urging the college to work on getting into compliance with accreditation standards. "The best way forward continues to be a focus on making the needed improvements at the college," the statement said.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a similar lawsuit last month. Herrera alleges that the commission's "advocacy and political bias" prejudiced its evaluation standards.

Both suits contend that the commission's degree-oriented goals conflict with City College's longstanding mission of open access.

Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, whose daughter and son-in-law attended City College, said the commission's job is to help schools like City College get back on track if they veer off but not to kill them.

"I believe in constructive criticism but not to be punitive," he said. "This is a life and death issue. Don't come to the schoolyard and try to bully people."

The U.S. Department of Education authorizes the commission to evaluate 112 community colleges with more than 2 million California students every six years.

The department found that the commission violated conflict of interest regulations when the commission president's husband served on an evaluation team. The department also found that an insufficient number of faculty representatives served on the team.

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and; James Dalgleish)

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