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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 01, 2001

Our Town Our Town (August 01, 2001)

A pattern of injustices? A pattern of injustices? (August 01, 2001)

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

Ican't imagine what it would be like to devote 50 years to working in urban schools and at 69 find myself on trial facing 19 felony charges for setting up housing and loans for district staff.

That is just what happened to Ravenswood Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight.

Even prosecution witnesses, who'd rented houses from Knight, had nothing but kind words to say for a woman who let months go by without asking for payment or threatening eviction, and who helped their children get into colleges. The argument that somehow Knight was trying to turn a profit by letting her renters use the district's emergency loan fund didn't convince jurors. They acquitted her on all counts.

Afterward, I asked defense co-counsel Ann Moorman if she thought racism had anything to do with this case being brought to trial. Yes, she said, but declined to say more. Hoping for more insight, I spent last weekend re-reading Jonathan Kozol's famous book on urban schools, "Savage Inequalities." Though written 10 years ago, his words still seem relevant.

He cites a pattern of hiring minorities as superintendents in under-funded, low-achieving districts. This "offers symbolism that protects a white society from charges of racism.... It offers scapegoats: When the situation is unchanged, he or she may be condemned...for corruption or ineptitude or lack of vision, for too much (or for too little) flair or energy or passion."

For example, "A black administrator, Richard Green, had been recruited from a system in the Midwest. He came to New York with extravagant praise, welcomed by the press and business leaders. Soon enough, he started to incur criticism that he was too cautious, too methodical, and not sufficiently aggressive. Dropout rates did not appreciably decline. Reading scores did not appreciably improve.

But New York City schools still had half the funds of suburban schools, and the best pupils and teachers drained away, Kozol noted. Green developed "the stricken look of someone who could barely breathe.... He was asthmatic and the asthma now became acute and chronic."

The casualty rate for minority superintendents is high: "Boston has had nine superintendents in two decades. Black superintendents have been released or 'not renewed' in half-a-dozen cities in the past two months.... This may be the case, because no matter how the job may be described, it is essentially the job of mediating an unjustice."

Kozol would say that we blame superintendents such as Green to avoid having to scrutinize broader inequities -- which are costly to correct and may pose a threat to the social structure. He would say if we didn't have a two-tiered system of public-school funding, competition for top colleges and top jobs would increase, running the risk that more whites might lose out.

East Palo Alto is similar to districts Kozol describes. Separation by race persists. Less than 1 percent of students in East Palo Alto are white, and only about 11 percent in Palo Alto schools are black or Latino. Of those, most are from East Palo Alto, sent over by court-order. East Palo Alto gets roughly two thirds of the funding per student that Palo Alto receives.

Prior to Knight's arrival, the district had 11 superintendents in 10 years.

Knight has held her job for 16 years, but not without being subject to endless criticism. In the last two months alone, the Mercury News ran two major front-page articles offering a laundry list of alleged mismanagement under Knight's administration. This caught the attention of state Superintendent of Instruction Delaine Eastin, who in a highly public fashion, ordered a financial probe of the district -- the second probe in three years.

Within weeks of Knight's acquittal, a federal judge in another case threatened to hold her in contempt for not working harder to improve instruction for special-needs children.

Maybe Knight could be doing a better job. But, what if, before we threw more stones in her direction, we looked again at how well the rest of us have fared in upholding our own promises? The courts decided nearly 50 years ago, in Brown versus Board of Education, that the practice of "separate but equal" was inherently unjust. As voters, as citizens, as a society we have yet to fulfill that promise.
Jennifer Dietz Berry is a staff writer at the Weekly.


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