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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Editorial: A vindication for Charlie Mae Knight Editorial: A vindication for Charlie Mae Knight (July 25, 2001)

Acquittal on conflict-of-interest charges brings relief, rejoicing for Ravenswood superintendent, but many questions remain

I'm relieved. I'm ecstatic. I feel vindicated. I just feel good to be alive."

That initial reaction by Charlie Mae Knight, embattled superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District, expressed the jubilation felt by family members and her many supporters as the San Mateo County Superior Court jury ended three days of deliberation July 18.

The jury acquitted Knight on all 19 counts of felony conflict of interest against her.

The verdict blows away the darkest of the clouds hanging over both Knight and the school district as a whole for nearly four years.

But the district still remains under scrutiny from the state Department of Education due to new allegations of manipulating test results and a continuing concern about financial management controls that must be described as loose and wasteful at best.

And the San Mateo County District Attorney's office itself should come under some scrutiny for its decision to bring criminal charges on what turned out to be a shallow, seemingly petty case based almost entirely on technical provisions of conflict-of-interest statutes -- with no solid allegation ever made that Knight personally profited or had an intent to defraud anyone.

The case related to a special emergency loan fund for district personnel that Knight had created with the help and encouragement of Bill Somerville, former head of the Peninsula Community Foundation. While the loans were approved by a four-member committee, Knight had signed the loan checks -- including checks for some people who were renting one of the six houses or condominiums owned by Knight.

The case was pursued despite the fact that Knight had earlier consulted with the San Mateo County Counsel's office about the proper procedures to follow, and had apparently corrected some of the problems.

Granted that loan-fund procedures and other district financial processes were sloppy -- as detailed in a 1999 civil Grand Jury report and extensive independent audit. But there is a serious question as to whether the charges brought were worth exposing the 69-year-old Knight to a maximum criminal sentence of 15 years in prison and nearly $20,000 in fines.

More than a year ago, we questioned the wisdom of the felony prosecution. We said the District Attorney's office seemed on shaky ground to us unless it had more substantive charges than those made public at the time. We said that if the allegations go beyond the technical charges, then the DA should tread carefully to avoid the appearance of politically influenced prosecution.

No such substance ever emerged, and the jury's acquittal now leaves the District Attorney's office resembling more the cold doggedness of Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" than a fair and independent guardian of public rectitude.

Just as Superintendent Knight should have been much more conscientious in avoiding any appearance of personal conflict of interest, so the District Attorney needs to avoid any appearance of unfairness in its pursuit of justice, any whiff of persecution in its prosecutions.

Even though Knight's intent to help district employees and pupils has not been challenged, she and the members of the Ravenswood school board who rallied around her need to recognize that the roots of the mess lie with the lack of financial oversight -- both at policy and bookkeeping levels -- that is a clearly established pattern in the district.

The real tragedy and cost of this immensely costly case is in the loss of momentum and confidence in the district. For four years, there has been a preoccupation with audits, charges and back-and-forth allegations at the expense of running the best district possible for the children.

It is a long, long way from that bright day in January 1997 when then-Governor Pete Wilson singled out Knight in his State-of-the-State address as an example of an educator who makes a great impact on the lives of students.

And the saddest thing is that this slide into suspicion could all have been avoided with proper attention to financial oversight and a commitment not to cut procedural corners -- even if the goal may be a worthy one.


 

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