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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 06, 2001
COURTS

Ravenswood board backs beleaguered superintendent Ravenswood board backs beleaguered superintendent (July 06, 2001)

Knight headed for trial on Monday

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

A 19-count felony indictment is just one battle Dr. Charlie Mae Knight faces starting Monday. But even as a new set of accusations have emerged, Ravenswood school board members remain firmly in their superintendent's corner.

"There's always been this dark cloud hanging over her head," said board member Chester Palesoo. "It's kind of hard, humanely speaking. I can't imagine myself being in that position."

In the trial, which begins Monday in San Mateo County Superior Court, prosecutors allege Knight broke state conflict-of-interest laws by drawing money from a special fund to aid district employees who owed her money. If convicted, the 69-year-old superintendent could face up to 15 years in prison, plus a $1,000 fine for each count.

The trial is only one challenge Knight is facing. She's also under fire for being slow to make court-ordered improvements in special education, and was the subject of a six month investigation by the San Jose Mercury News. Two recently published articles portrayed Knight as a leader less committed to students than to helping her friends and keeping up the district's image.

But with the jury selected and the case headed to trial, board members say they remain united in their support for the superintendent.

"I don't even think it's a wait-and-see kind of attitude from the board," said board member Bomani Siwatu. "Our expectation is that she won't be convicted of anything."

So far, Siwatu says, the board has not discussed how they would proceed in the event that Knight is found guilty. He says there will be time enough after the trial if it becomes an issue.

Knight declined to comment, but Siwatu laughed when asked whether the trial, or any of the other controversies, might push the superintendent into retirement.

"I don't see that happening," he said. "I don't see her fading into the woodwork because she got beat up on. She's not that kind of fighter."

The grand-jury indictment alleges Knight broke state conflict-of-interest laws by helping give emergency public loans ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $12,000 to district employees who owed her money or rented housing from her.

According to the law, the mere appearance that Knight could have personally benefited from the loans is sufficient for a conviction. Prosecutors need not prove she actually received any benefit, or that she intended to benefit.

Knight has said in the past she does not believe her actions were inappropriate. Rather, she had been trying to help those in need. She has criticized the District Attorney's office for seeking to indict her on a "technicality."

But Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe holds another view.

"Any time a government official deals with money or has any involvement with the public trust, it's exceedingly important that they do so without the slightest appearance or actuality of a conflict of interest," he stated when the grand jury first handed down the charges. "It's about public trust."

In addition to the pending court case, board members now must contend with new set of criticisms leveled against Knight in the Mercury News. The newspaper reported Knight encouraged staff to fill in standardized test questions for special-education students to help boost district scores; supported sending board members and other district personnel on unnecessary trips overseas; and hired friends to work in the district who had criminal records, among other abuses.

Siwatu dismisses the charges as unfounded, and denounced the articles as a "political hit piece." The school board is in the midst of drafting a letter to parents countering the newspaper's account.

Although fellow board member Chester Palesoo also criticized aspects of the reporting, he did say some of the issues merited further investigation by the district.

"We want to make sure that everything is done right," he said. "Every district has their issues. We want to make sure our issues are taken care of."

Palesoo said he, too, remains supportive of Knight. He believes it's premature to judge whether the controversy surrounding Knight would inhibit her ability to effectively lead the district.

"At this point, I am not going to say yes or no," he said. "The thing of it is, we're going to wait to see what happens with the trial. As I said, we're a team that tries to focus on what is best for the school district children and the community."

E-mail Jennifer Berry at jberry@paweekly.com


 

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