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Knight Resigns; Lynwood Board Buys Out Contract

August 01, 1985|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — In an unexpected move, suspended schools Supt. Charlie Mae Knight has resigned after more than four tumultuous years as head of the predominantly Latino and black, 12,000-student Lynwood Unified School District.

In a settlement hammered-out behind the scenes, the school district board agreed to buy out Knight's contract amounting to $154,000 and to drop its investigation of her administration of school funds. For her part, Knight agreed to resign and to drop all legal action against the district.

School Board President Helen Andersen read the announcement of Knight's resignation and terms of the settlement during a Tuesday night special board meeting which had been scheduled for budget hearings. The announcement followed an hour-long closed-door session with the five-member board, a district's attorney representative and Knight's lawyer.

"This settlement allows us to be able to get on with business. We can move forward," Andersen said, noting that the board's vote was unanimous.

Sent Shock Waves

Andersen's announcement "sent shock waves through the crowd. This was not expected. We had come to discuss the budget," said Sondra Sibley, a district teacher and a staunch Knight supporter.

"I feel betrayed. I think she sold out for a little money. She led us to believe she was going to fight this to the end," said Bennie Miranda, another supporter.

Knight, 52, who was not present, said in a telephone interview later: "This is not a sell-out. This is actually what I wanted. I need to get on with my career. I know I have disappointed a lot of people. People are arriving at my home in tears. But I must get on with my career." The superintendent was suspended with pay on June 4, when the board voted 3-2 to reopen a grand jury investigation that in 1984 cleared Knight of misconduct charges involving the use of public funds.

After her suspension, Knight--who had received $65,000 a year under a contract that was to run through 1987--filed a $4-million breach of contract and defamation claim against three members of the board, the acting superintendent, business manager and an attorney for the board. The board denied Knight's claim. Knight had said she would follow with a suit.

The suspension vote, as well as an April vote in which the majority wanted to drastically reduce Knight's powers, was supported by the board's three white members and opposed by its two black members. Knight is black, as is acting Supt. LaVoneia Steele.

Knight supporters had accused the board majority--Andersen, Willard Hawn Reed and Richard Armstrong--of racism, which the majority denied.

Board Members Joe Battle and Thelma Williams, who has supported Knight on previous occasions, said they had voted for the settlement because it was apparent that it was what Knight wanted. Both said they were surprised that Knight had agreed to resign.

"I talked to her Sunday. She gave no indication of it (the settlement). I'm shocked," Battle said.

"I'm sorry to see her go. I think she was a positive image for minority youths," Williams said.

Knight's tenure was marked by tension and crises, with sparks flying almost immediately after she was hired in May, 1982.

She faced disgruntled parents, who protested what they said was official mishandling of the district's free and reduced-price lunch program, a teacher's strike, the grand jury probe, low student test scores and a continuing need for more textbooks.

Almost a year ago, a dispute erupted over the site for construction of a $34-million high school, a controversy that apparently prompted the school board to vote in September whether to buy out Knight's contract.

That vote ended in a 2-2 tie. At the time the board was without a fifth member because one member had resigned. A fifth member, Reed, was elected in March of this year, and shortly after that the move began to reduce Knight's role in the day-to-day management of the school system.

The board agreed Tuesday to pay Knight in three installments, making an immediate payment of $30,000, a $51,400 payment in January, 1986, and the last one of $72,600 in July, 1986. Knight's salary was approximately $65,000 a year. Her contract was up in 1987.

The board had not held any discussions on a successor, said board member Armstrong.

Bored Staying Home

"We're in the middle of budget discussions. First things first. Dr. Steele is acting superintendent. We haven't given any thought to it."

Knight, who lives in Lynwood, said in an interview Tuesday night that she had become bored staying at home and "having somebody bring me a check." A faithful jogger, she said she had started to go to a physical fitness center "where there was no tension. This (suspension) was a vacation. I hadn't taken a vacation since I came here."

"I talked to my family about the settlement. They were in total agreement with me. My son had suffered enough. He was under constant tension at Lynwood High School because of my situation," Knight said.

The request by the majority of the board to have school board Counsel Eric Bathen re-investigate the issues looked into by the grand jury also played a part in her decision, Knight said.

"The grand jury investigation resulted in nothing. Then they were asking for another investigation without any cause. I decided if the board was willing to reach an agreement I was satisfied."

She said she did not intend to leave the area and would finish her term, which ends in 1987, as a board member of the Compton Community College District.

Knight said she would not rule out searching for a job in the future as superintendent in another inner- city school district.

As for her years in the Lynwood district, Knight said, "I hold no bitterness."

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