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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 18, 2001
SCHOOLS

Ravenswood finances scrutinized by state Ravenswood finances scrutinized by state (July 18, 2001)

Court trial focuses on superintendent's employee loans

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

Even as Charlie Mae Knight took the stand last Friday, defending herself against 19 felony counts of conflict of interest, the state prepared to put the Ravenswood schools superintendent under yet another microscope.

State Superintendent Delaine Eastin is now calling for a probe of the district's financial records by the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team.

Stories in the San Jose Mercury News suggested that, among other failings, the district had funded unnecessary travel expenses for board members and other school staff and submitted fraudulent damage reports following a fire at an elementary school.

The Ravenswood district has not issued a formal response to the charges, but individually members have called the reporting a "political hit-piece" that gave a one-sided account of actions taken by the district. Board member Bomani Siwatu said district lawyers are now reviewing a letter the board drafted to argue their side. Siwatu said the letter will likely be mailed home to parents of Ravenswood students sometime this week.

In the meantime, board member Ruben Abrica has written a personal response, saying the Mercury News did not provide a full picture of the reasons behind board member's travel expenses. He argued he traveled to Mexico on behalf of the district as part of a partnership program with the California Department of Education, called the California/Mexico Visiting Teachers Program. The state-sanctioned program was set up to aid districts like Ravenswood that are struggling to find bilingual teachers who are better able to serve the district's high population of students who speak Spanish as a first language.

"The days that I worked in Mexico recruiting teachers were a donation of my time, since we do not receive a salary as board members," Abrica wrote. "If a staff person had gone, the district would have had to pay a portion of the salary for that person."

Abrica estimated that taking the trip as a volunteer saved the district about $1,800 in salary expenses. He estimated that his travel expenses, covered by the district, were roughly $1,600.

Defenders and critics of the Ravenswood district are also painting very different views of district programs and policies in the ongoing court trial against Superintendent Knight.

Knight seemed confident and at ease on the stand last Friday, as she defended herself against 19 conflict-of-interest charges. The prosecution is trying to prove she stood to benefit from authorizing district personnel to draw from an emergency loan fund even as they were renting property owned by Knight and her husband.

Although Knight's signature is on many of the loan approval forms, she testified that in fact she did not review loan requests, nor was she involved in decisions about who would receive loans.

"I don't see a connection between my signature and that fund since it was being administered by another administrative body," she said.

Knight also testified that when a board member raised concerns that having Knight's signature on the loan approval forms might be considered a conflict of interest, Knight contacted the San Mateo County Counsel's office. Knight said the counsel sent her a letter stipulating what she should do to remain in compliance. At that point, she said, the district reworked the loan process so someone else would sign the checks for the emergency funds.

Questioning by the prosecution seemed geared toward painting Knight as a wealthy landowner who profited greatly from renting out houses in East Palo Alto and elsewhere. Questioning also seemed to suggest that Knight was more generous in promoting staff who rented from her.

Marilyn Gurley was among the district staff members who testified. She has worked for the district for 14 years, starting as a substitute food service worker and moving up to become the supervisor of personnel service last year.

Gurley, who lives with her husband and seven daughters, was among those who rented property from Knight. Gurley said Knight offered her family a three-bedroom house in East Palo Alto for the same rent as they'd been paying for a two bedroom home.

She testified that Knight had never threatened her with eviction or charged her late fees even though her family was often behind in paying their rent, particularly after Christmas.

"I was surprised that she never said anything, honestly, when I was behind," Gurley said of Knight.

Gurley did admit that one of the district emergency loans she requested was used to pay rent to Knight, but she said Knight had not pressured her to take the loan. Rather, her family had made the decision out of courtesy. "For us, it's a matter of pride," Gurley said. "You rent from a person and you want to pay that person on time."

The trial is expected to conclude sometime this week.

E-mail Jennifer Berry at jberry@paweekly.com


 

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