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Trustees in Lynwood Are Accused of Racism

April 25, 1985|RALPH CIPRIANO | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — Supporters of embattled Supt. Charlie Mae Knight, including representatives of the NAACP and a state organization of school administrators, accused Lynwood Unified School District board members Tuesday of racism and using illegal tactics in an attempt to strip Knight of her powers.

But after the last of Knight's supporters had spoken, board members denied the allegations and reaffirmed their intention to transfer many of Knight's duties to one of her top aides.

"I think it was expected," board president Helen Andersen said of the outpouring that came at the end of Tuesday's meeting. "There hasn't been anything new tonight."

Andersen added that the board might vote to revise Knight's duties at its May 7 meeting.

Newly elected Trustee Willard Reed called the demonstration by Knight's supporters "well orchestrated" but added that the school board will proceed with its plans because the district desperately needs to improve its quality of education.

"The education is not going on in spite of the impassioned speeches you hear," he said.

Request to Lawyer

Earlier this month, a majority of board members--Andersen, Reed and Richard Armstrong--asked a school district lawyer to draw up a new job description for Knight that would drastically reduce her role in the 12,000-student district.

The board asked the lawyer to transfer Knight's duties for the administration of attendance, curriculum and bilingual education to other school officials, with most of the duties to be assumed by LaVoneia Steele, assistant superintendent of educational services. The board members who want to switch the duties are white; Knight and Steele are black.

Knight told board members at Tuesday's meeting that she would fight their plans.

"You can put me in a matchbox and I want to tell you because of my leadership, that the crowd will come back with me," she said. The superintendent listed some of her accomplishments, including getting students to dress in school uniforms for physical education classes; forcing drug peddlers off campus; obtaining extra police protection for the district, which avoided problems of gang violence, and imposing minimum standards for teachers.

Knight's defenders included Virna M. Canson, regional director of the nine-state West Coast region of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

'Endangered Species'

Canson said that black superintendents, which she said constitute less than 5% of the state's superintendents, are an "endangered species."

"How can we preach intellectual excellence if we exhibit anti-intellectual behavior?" Canson asked the school board members, and added, "Statesmanship would direct you to assess the damage to children if you act capriciously and out of raw political vendetta to remove your superintendent, whose tenure is so short and yet her accomplishment so noteworthy."

Canson said she was disturbed by the "inordinate turmoil" surrounding black superintendents in Lynwood and in the Inglewood Unified School District. The NAACP official said her organization has sent a telegram to Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction, requesting an investigation of the "relationship of school boards to black superintendents of schools" in California, particularly in Lynwood and Inglewood.

In Inglewood, a new school board has vowed to oust Supt. Rex Fortune, who is black, while the outgoing board has voted to extend his contract. Fortune has said he will resist efforts to reassign him or buy out his contract.

Spencer Covert, a Santa Ana attorney representing Knight and the Assn. of California Administrators, said the association's board of directors has said that it is not legally permissible to transfer a superintendent's duties and responsibilities.

Possible Lawsuit

After the meeting, Covert said that if the board goes ahead with its plans to strip Knight of her duties, he would file a civil rights suit charging that the board had acted illegally. He added that the board has not established a formal process for reviewing Knight's performance and have so far denied her a hearing to address the board's complaints.

During the meeting, Caffie Greene, a community activist, also accused board members of racism and pitting one black administrator against another.

"She (Steele) has been gullible enough to fall for your tricks," Greene told board members. "You don't mean either one of them any good."

Greene added, "We are not going to sit here and let you destroy our black superintendent and the black people."

Also speaking on Knight's behalf was Inglewood schools Supt. Fortune, who compared Knight to baseball player Jackie Robinson. Calling her a "champion" for her race, Fortune praised Knight for zeal and tenacity and pronounced her an "education visionary."

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