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'Rock 'em-Sock 'em Charlie' : Ousted School Chief Takes Parting Shot

August 04, 1985|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — Following her surprise resignation as superintendent of the Lynwood Unified School District, Charlie Mae Knight made a prediction about the board that paid her $154,000 to quit.

"Now that I'm gone, maybe they'll find out old 'rock 'em-sock 'em Charlie' was not their problem," she said, adding, "I wish them well."

Willard Hawn Reed, one of Knight's critics on the school board, did not quite agree. "I would not want to say Knight was our main problem. But it (Knight's situation) hasn't done us a lot of good," Reed said.

And board President Helen Andersen, also a Knight critic, said she thought the board could go forward now because "the question of the superintendent had us split."

As has happened so often on questions surrounding Knight, board member Thelma Williams was ready to disagree with Andersen. "We can't place all our problems on Knight's shoulders." Williams said. "That is unrealistic and unfair."

Talks to Go On

At least one neutral observer seemed to indicate that Knight's resignation Tuesday night did not abolish the tension that has surrounded the board in recent months. A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department's Community Relations Service said on Thursday that the agency will go ahead next month with talks designed to reduce community tension.

Although the board's rancorous 3-2 split over Knight's future with the school district had been cited as one reason for the talks, Community Relations Service spokesman Vermont McKinney said, "We are proceeding as before."

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.

McKinney, a specialist with the Community Relations Service's regional office in San Francisco, said the department has observed "an escalation of tension" in the district and hopes it can "try and improve relationships between the board and the community."

McKinney said representatives from the service, which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have monitored community and board meetings for more than a month.

Mediation Function

"(Our) main function is mediation and conciliation of racial and ethnic tension," McKinney said. He said that the department learned of the district discord from news reports.

The first in an expected series of talks has been tentatively scheduled for Sept. 9, McKinney said.

McKinney said the department is attempting to assemble a group of about 15 to 20 participants, including the five school board members. The department is "in the process of talking to community people, citizen groups, parents and the PTA," who will be asked to attend the talks, McKinney said.

He said that in private discussions before Knight's resignation, all five board members had agreed to take part in the talks, and he had not been informed of any change in the board members' position.

However, Andersen said she did not believe the talks were now necessary. Reed, Williams and Joe Battle said they would want the talks to be held. The board's other member, Richard Armstrong, could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Knight has thrown her support for the superintendent's position in the 12,000-student Lynwood district to the woman who temporarily took her job, acting Supt. Steele.

"I think she is capable of doing a good job. I was surprised to read in the newspaper that the board had not considered a successor. That's unfair to Dr. Steele. She has paid a price. She has great credentials. She is a Stanford (University) graduate," Knight said.

Acting Superintendent

Steele could not be reached for comment. She was acting superintendent for six months prior to Knight's arrival in May, 1981, and was named acting superintendent June 4 when the board voted 3-2 to suspend Knight with pay and investigate allegations of misuse of public funds. Those allegations apparently tracked an earlier investigation by a Los Angeles County grand jury, which cleared her of wrongdoing in 1984.

After the suspension, Knight included Steele in a $4-million claim against the board, which the board rejected. Knight had said she intended to file a lawsuit, but part of her agreement with the school board included her pledge not to pursue any legal action. In return, the board bought out her contract for $154,000 and agreed to drop its investigation of her.

The board could possibly "take up the issue of replacing the superintendent" at its next regularly scheduled board meeting in September, said board member Willard Hawn Reed.

"Dr. Steele was considered before (in 1981) and she'll probably, hopefully, be considered again," Reed said.

In addition to finding a new superintendent, the school board also must find a site for construction of its long-delayed, $34-million high school.

Argument With City

The district has argued with the city over sharing the 10.6-acre Ham Memorial Park for more than a year.

The district maintains that use of the park for part of its campus would cause the least disruption of residents and businesses. School district officials have said the park could be upgraded for use by students and the public.

But city officials have said they would not share it, arguing that Ham Park can only be used as a park because of a stipulation placed on it by Los Angeles County when it sold the land to the city in 1953.

Currently, environmental impact studies are being conducted on the park site and a second site, which encompasses a Zody's department store, Super Foods Market and the recreational field of the Seventh-day Adventist Academy and church.

A public hearing was held in May on the school sites. More hearings are scheduled this month and next on the environmental studies.

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