An inconsistent application of sanctions and a lack of transparency are weakening the accreditation of California's community colleges, according to a state audit released Thursday.
State Auditor Elaine Howle criticized the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges for its opaque accreditation process.
The audit was especially critical in the case of City College of San Francisco, which had its accreditation terminated in 2013, one year after the commission questioned its leadership and fiscal planning.
Federal regulations allow institutions up to two years to come into compliance, and the city sued to keep the college open. A judge granted a stay of closure in January, and CCSF has since been given two more years to meet accreditation standards.
The audit examined five years of actions taken by the commission, between January 2009 and January 2014, during which time 15 sanctioned institutions were allowed the full two years to reach compliance and another six were granted extensions of up to five years.
"The commission's decision regarding CCSF's accreditation raises concerns about its reasoning for taking such a severe action," Howle wrote in a letter to the governor and lawmakers.
The report also expressed concerns that "the commission conducts its most significant decision making regarding an institution's accreditation status in closed sessions," which "could lead to public skepticism about the commission's equity and consistency."
According to a survey of the executives at each of the 112 California community colleges, conducted as part of the audit, 38 percent did not feel the commission's decision-making process was adequately transparent.
In a withering conclusion, the report recommended that the state allow community colleges flexibility to choose an alternative accreditor. A bill by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, that would make that change to the Education Code is currently in the Senate.
The accrediting commission wrote a scathing response to the audit, calling it "factually inaccurate" and "incomplete."
"ACCJC recognizes that the Auditor and her assigned team members do not have the expertise to conduct an audit of the type that was undertaken in this instance," the commission wrote in a letter included with the report. "Audit standards require auditors to have independence and technical competence."