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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 15, 2001
EDUCATION

Knight: Bloodied but unbowed Knight: Bloodied but unbowed (August 15, 2001)

Superintendent remains defiant despite critics, legal issues

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

In her 69 years, Ravenswood schools Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight had never seen the inside of a jail cell. But that was about to change.

After spending nearly 50 years in education -- working mostly in poor, urban districts -- Knight was under arrest on 19 felony counts of conflict of interest. Prosecutors were accusing her of trying to turn a profit by renting homes to district personnel, then giving them special access to district loan funds so they could pay her.

As Knight arrived at the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, her status as one of the nation's most prominent African-American educators no longer seemed to matter. A deputy sheriff ordered her to get into a long line where men in orange prison uniforms stood waiting. Knight herself was in heels and a suit, dressed for a speaking engagement. As she waited, a deputy approached her. "Dr. Knight," the woman said, "Is that you?"

The deputy told Knight to take off her shoes and stockings, then led the superintendent by the arm to the front of the line. What Knight remembers most is the feel of cold cement under her bare feet as she walked into the jail cell. She heard the door clang shut and the lock turn.

"By this time, little tears started coming down and I started to feel sorry for myself," she said.

But just as quickly, the deputy unlocked the door and led Knight to have her fingerprints taken. By then, most of the jail staff had realized who Knight was and an awkwardness filled the room, as another deputy took prints of one thumb, then the other.

"You did that good," he said. "Now we have to take a print of your big toe."

Knight looked down at her feet, then back at the deputy. "I'm going to have to put my toe up there on that table?"

Only then, did she realize he was kidding. As they shared a laugh, Knight started to feel like herself again.

During a wide-ranging two-hour interview with Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson and reporter Jennifer Deitz Berry, Knight responded to allegations against the district, including the challenges of working in an impoverished and diverse school district, her own role in stirring up controversy as an outspoken and aggressive leader, her handling of the special education program, her reasons for supporting board member travel to foreign countries, and what she considers her greatest accomplishments.

She discussed her future plans and reflected on the present controversy that may cost force her out.

Knight says her trip to the jail cell was the lowest point in a long and difficult year. On July 19, a San Mateo County jury acquitted Knight of the conflict-of-interest charges, after prosecution witnesses who had rented from Knight spoke highly of her generosity. But this was only one of many hurdles Knight faced.

The San Jose Mercury News made her the subject of an intense investigation, which culminated in two front-page articles critical of Knight, which ran just days before jury selection in her trial. Alarmed by reports in the newspaper, state Superintendent Delaine Eastin held a press conference, midway through Knight's trial, ordering a state probe of district finances. Lacking jurisdiction, the probe was later reassigned to county education offices.

In a separate case, a U.S. District Court Judge threatened to hold Knight in contempt of court for not moving fast enough to implement a 250-item corrective plan to improve services for special-education students. The district had agreed to the plan as part of a settlement in a lawsuit filed on behalf of special-education students in the district. Last week, state officials and attorneys for the special-education students recommended that Henderson order a state takeover of the district.

Through it all, Knight has also grieved the death of her husband, Leroy, who succumbed to cancer in December.

Others in her position might have chosen to retire rather than weather such storms. But after 16 years as the head of the Ravenswood district, Knight has gotten used to being the center of controversy. She is a strong-willed leader who, in making her decisions, has assumed the attitude: "It is better to ask forgiveness than permission."

But Knight is quick to admit this approach has gained her some enemies.

"I'm one of the most -- I am the most -- outspoken black superintendent in California," she said. "If you speak out, you're going to take your knocks."

With jail time no longer a threat, Knight has no intention of giving up her post. "What do I have to lose? The worst thing that will happen is I'll have to retire, when I should be retired anyway."

Still, Knight says she feels recent depictions of her leadership have been one-sided. For instance, she says, the district has been criticized for its alleged extravagance in funding travel to foreign countries to recruit bilingual and special-education teachers.

Knight defends the travel, explaining a trip to the Philippines enabled Ravenswood to recruit 14 trained special-education teachers at a cost of less than $1,500 to the district. Through a special arrangement with the Spanish Consulate, the district was also able to recruit 10 experienced bilingual teachers this year at a cost of roughly $800 to Ravenswood, she adds.

Knight says these trips have been more successful than local recruitment fairs, where more affluent districts lure away the best teachers.

Her next battle will be to convince a federal court judge she is competent enough to continue leading the district, despite problems with the special-education program.

On Aug. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson will consider whether or not to hold Knight in contempt of court for alleged mismanagement of the program. Henderson has the option of ordering a state takeover of the district and removing Knight as superintendent.

Knight said she believes the district is working hard to improve special-education services and is willing to spend whatever it takes to meet the terms of the settlement. She has sought the court's permission to hire a special-education expert who would have independent oversight of the district's program. The consultant would answer only to the school board, the judge and the court monitor. Knight also believes the 14 new special-education teachers slated to start in fall will improve the district's ability to serve students.

Recognizing the judge may view these efforts as "too little, too late," Knight still believes her plan would better serve students than having the state in charge. She said it would seem strange to rely on state supervision, since the state was a co-defendant in the case for its alleged lack of oversight when the matter was first brought to trial.

Depending on what the judge rules, Knight said, "We will find out whether it is important to serve children, or is it important to rule someone out of compliance."

E-mail Jennifer Deitz Berry at jberry@paweekly.com


 

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