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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2001
SCHOOLS

Ravenswood board vows to fight back Ravenswood board vows to fight back (July 25, 2001)

State to intervene in district's financial practices

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

Celebration over Ravenswood schools chief Charlie Mae Knight's acquittal on conflict-of-interest charges was sweet but short-lived. Just hours after the verdict came down, board members held a special meeting to work on plans to bolster the district's image in light of recent bad press. They also geared up to do battle with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, who has ordered a financial probe of the district.

"She has requested that the Fiscal Crisis Management Team go into Ravenswood and do . . . a financial examination," said Eastin spokesman Doug Stone. "It will be a comprehensive overview that will also include policies and procedures."

That announcement came in the wake of accusations by the San Jose Mercury News that the district committed insurance fraud and allowed special-education students to cheat on standardized tests.

"Many of the allegations that have been bandied about have been public for some time," said Stone. But, he added, "The Mercury News articles put things on the table in a very public manner."

On Thursday, the Ravenswood board considered, but ultimately rejected, plans to sue the newspaper for printing allegations members believe are false. Instead, board members Bomani Siwatu and Lois Frontino formed a "communications committee," to present the district's side of the story.

"What we're concerned about is that the community be well-informed, and that if there were inaccurate statements, that they be clarified," said Siwatu.

Frontino suggested that the committee be authorized to spend up to $15,000 on the public relations campaign. Money would be spent hiring a writer who would draft a report offering the district's side of the story, and for a mailing to district parents and funders.

Part of board members' concern is that between press from the conflict-of-interest lawsuit and the announcement of the pending financial probe, parents and donors may lose confidence in the district's ability to responsibly manage funds.

"People who make contributions to the school district, they don't want to have the impression that their money is being spent on boondoggle things, the way we're being depicted," said Siwatu.

Board members deny there is any merit to the allegations that prompted the probe, but the extent to which they planned to investigate specific charges seemed unclear.

The board did ask district attorneys to look into charges of insurance fraud, Abrica said. The newspaper had reported that the district submitted claims for more losses than were actually incurred.

In fact, Abrica says, the district's insurance claim was drawn up in cooperation with the insurance assessors, not based on a specific list of items lost, but mutually agreed-upon estimates.

Abrica said the district would also look into charges that two aides had been told to cheat by filling in correct answers on standardized tests for special-education students.

Abrica and Siwatu varied somewhat in their assessment of the district's accounting procedures, but both say charges against the district are overblown. Abrica admitted there was room for improvement. But he said, "There's a long cry between illegal activities and tightening our procedures."

Siwatu said he believed the district's fiscal management was sound. "Our contention is that (Eastin) is welcome to come in, but we feel it's the obligation of the state to pay for this, because it's not being requested by the county and it's not being requested by us," he said. "There's no evidence at all of a fiscal crisis. We're solvent."

E-mail Jennifer Berry at jberry@paweekly.com


 

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