Special funds are focus of Knight case

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 3, 1997

RAVENSWOOD: Special funds are focus of Knight case

District's emergency fund assisted employees in need, including four who rented from Knight

Ravenswood School District Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight is known in and outside of East Palo Alto as someone who helps others.

To those who work for her, she is known as someone they can go to in difficult times. She herself told the story of how she helped convince bank officials from foreclosing on a woman's home and evicting her family.

Those who have donated money to the inner city school district see Knight as an "outstanding funding investment for anybody," said Bill Somerville, founder of the Peninsula Community Foundation who is now head of the Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.

Knight's connection with two district funds to help community members is part of an investigation being conducted by the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office into possible financial conflict of interest by Knight and the school district.

Deputy District Attorney Peter Lynch said he is still gathering documents, but is looking into whether Knight has a conflict of interest because she rents property she owns to school district employees.

Part of the investigation also includes the role Knight played in two district funds. One, called the Employee Emergency Fund, is set up to help needy district employees, The other, called the Needy Children's Fund, was set up to help members of the community.

The emergency fund was created, Knight said, to help new teachers coming into the district searching for affordable housing in an increasingly expensive market. The district fund would often help teachers come up with the first month's rent, or help them pay bills at the end of the month.

The district attorney is looking into the fact that four of the teachers or staff members who benefited from the fund rented housing units from Knight at one time or another.

This summer, in response to the District Attorney's investigation, the school board changed the name of the fund to a "salary advancement fund."

In the long term, Knight said, "I don't know what's going to happen to the fund. I think it'd be a shame if they cut it out," she said.

Nelly Maldonado, a district office secretary, knows first hand about the value of the fund. In April 1996, Maldonado was struggling to pay her children's school tuition, her property tax, and was threatened with losing her car insurance. She was able to borrow $1,500 from the emergency housing fund to cover her debts, and she says she has since paid it back (by having the district deduct money from her paycheck). As part of the loan she paid the required 12 percent one-time fee.

"You get it right away when you need it. When you go to the bank, they ask you a thousand questions," she said. "I was trying to get it to other sources, but I was desperate."

Maldonado's co-worker, Dorothy Metcalf White, the district office receptionist, has used the fund on several occasions when times got tough. When her father passed away, she had to pay the burial expenses, which left her unable to make her full house payment. Another time, when White was hit by a car as a pedestrian, she again turned to the fund. "It helped me keep my house," White said, while she was on disability from work. "This money is not free money. You have to give this money back."

In 1993, Knight approached Somerville, who agreed to start the fund with a $15,000 grant. A committee was formed to decide who is qualified to receive a loan. Later, Somerville agreed to expand the fund to include all district employees.

Knight is not a member of the committee that determines who receives the funds.

"It was a wonderful idea," Somerville said. "I checked her (Knight) out very much. She's a terribly dedicated person. What she immediately did was go to bat for her employees." And, he added, renting property to employees who sought loans "wasn't against the rules. It (was) helping people get into housing."

Somerville said he trusts Knight so much that he will give her "emergency response" money when she asks, without needing to know specifics of how the money will be spent. He added that the district must report back to the foundation about how the money was spent. "What we're doing is trying to turn the schools into a community advocate."

The district has also recently set up a Needy Children's Fund, focused on helping children from low-income families buy supplies, school uniforms, or help families defray other costs. Knight even convinced a property owner whose home had fallen into disrepair to rent it to a single mother with six children.

"I was in a situation where I was homeless," said the mother, Adrienne Phillips, who is raising four children of her own along with two of her brother's children. The principal of her children's school suggested talking to Knight, but Phillips, who had had run-ins with Knight, wasn't sure. On their second meeting, she changed her mind, and Knight told her about a home on Clarke Street.

"It was a shambles," Phillips recalled, and she had no furniture. But by the time her family moved in, the home had been fixed up, with new carpeting, beds, linens, and even a washer and dryer. She paid a subsidized rent (because she qualified for federal low-income housing) directly to the home's owner.

"I didn't know Dr. Knight before she did these things. We were strangers . . . , but she had an understanding of my situation. Dr. Knight can't have a conflict of interest with me. I didn't know her," Phillips said.

"I've been stable for three years. My kids got back on track," she said, and her oldest son recently graduated from Woodside High School.

--Elizabeth Darling

What do you think?

You can register your opinion on this or any other story in today's Weekly, by calling our ReaderWire line at 326-8291 (then press 1), sending us an e-mail letter at readerwire@paweekly.com or faxing us at 326-3928. "I checked her (Knight) out very much. She's a terribly dedicated person. What she immediately did was go to bat for her employees." @id:--Bill Somerville, head of Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.

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