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Lynwood School Chief Files Damages Claim in Wake of Suspension

June 13, 1985|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — Suspended school Supt. Charlie Mae Knight has filed a $4-million breach of contract and defamation claim against three members of the Lynwood Unified School District Board of Education, its acting superintendent, business manager and a board attorney.

It states that she was defamed by last week's "unlawful unilateral suspension."

Knight's claim asks for $1 million in general and special damages, and also seeks punitive damages of $500,000 each from the three board members, the attorney and two school district employees.

An attorney with the Santa Ana firm of Parker and Covert, which represents Knight, said that by state law the claim has to be submitted before a lawsuit is permitted. If the claim is denied by the Lynwood school board, a lawsuit would be filed, attorney Margaret Chidester said.

"I'm going to sue them whether I get anything or not," Knight said during an interview at her home Tuesday.

"The entire thing has been an emotional strain . . . an embarrassment . . . insulting. I was not given enough time to clear out my office after the suspension. I was given about two hours to clear out four years of work."

Board President Helen Andersen, board members Willard Hawn Reed and Richard Armstrong, Acting Supt. LaVoneia Steele and Business Manager Johnnie Savoy were served with Knight's claim Tuesday during a tense meeting that was constantly interrupted by angry Knight supporters. Attorney Eric Bathen, who was also named in the claim, did not attend the meeting. During the meeting, Reed also was served with an intent-to-recall petition by residents.

The board room was filled to capacity with Knight supporters for the second consecutive week. Outside, more than 100 demonstrators marched during the meeting to protest the suspension. Others jammed the hallway in an attempt to hear what was being discussed in the board room.

At one point, many in the audience shouted their disapproval of reports that Steele's name would replace Knight's on diplomas for the June graduating class. After Steele acknowledged that Knight's name would not appear, the audience became even more upset and louder, and Andersen adjourned the meeting.

The majority of the board voted June 4 to suspend Knight with pay (she is paid $65,000 a year under a contract that runs through 1987) and asked Bathen to re-open an investigation into allegations of misconduct and misuse of funds against Knight and four other employees. Board members Thelma Williams and Joe Battle voted against the suspension and were not named in Knight's claim.

The misconduct allegations initially were made to the county superintendent of schools in September, 1983, reportedly by district employees and/or officials whose names were never made public. A February, 1984, Los Angeles County Grand Jury audit of the district's books found no wrongdoing but recommended that the district tighten its management practices.

Board Not Satisfied

The board majority was not satisfied with the findings of the grand jury, Bathen said in an interview. "The investigation will pick up where the grand jury left off. Other significant allegations have been raised. The investigation will discover what is true and what is not."

During the June 4 meeting, the majority of the board also passed a resolution stating in part that "the state Department of Education has informed the superintendent that the district must refund approximately $267,000 for overcharging in the Federal Lunch Program."

Knight has denied this. She said that in April the Department of Education audited the district's lunch program, but there was no indication that the district had to refund $267,000. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education this week essentially agreed with Knight.

'Complex Situation'

"I don't know where the $267,000 figure came from," said Maria Balakshin, administrator of the Department of Education's nutrition services. "This is a very complex situation. We audited the district but have not assessed any dollar amount. No action has been taken. This is a long, drawn-out process that is continuing."

Knight, 53, said that while she is contented for the time being to stay home, "draw my salary and jog," she is angry about her treatment by the school board majority.

She said that if she were "white and male," she would not have many of her current problems.

"This whole thing is a giant conspiracy. Why is this continuing? The grand jury was satisfied," Knight said.

Reed, who was elected to the board with 55% of the vote in a three-way special election March 5, was served with the recall petition by Lee Sampson. The petition was signed by Sampson, Charles Floyd and Benito Miranda.

During the protest outside the administration building, demonstrators had shouted intermittently, "Reed must go! Reed must go!"

The board had been without a fifth member since Jo Evelyn Terrell resigned in August, and many of their motions were deadlocked by 2-to-2 votes.

Among the protesters outside the meeting was former Inglewood Supt. Rex Fortune, who was fired in a dispute with the school board there May 13. (The Inglewood board voted earlier this week to rehire Fortune if he met a number of conditions, including agreeing to drop a $3.5 million lawsuit against the school board.)

"I support Charlie Mae Knight because she is a proven leader in education," Fortune said. "It is important that citizens protest actions like this."

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