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Delay of Meetings Stirs Questions by Lynwood Officials

September 26, 1985|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — The first in a series of talks scheduled this month between representatives of the U. S. Justice Department, members of the community and the Lynwood Unified School District to ease community tension has been postponed until after the Nov. 5 school board election.

The delay of the talks--which two board members said caught them by surprise--was requested by Lynwood school board President Helen Andersen, according to Justice Department spokesmen.

Andersen, who is one of two school board members facing reelection, said that a majority of the board decided that it would be best to delay the talks until after the election. She refused to say when the majority reached the decision, but she said that members Willard Hawn Reed and Richard Armstrong had agreed.

The two other school board members, who have been at odds with the board's majority over its treatment of former Supt. Charlie Mae Knight, said they knew nothing of the cancellation.

Tension 'Still There'

"I'd like to know who called for this cancellation. I don't know anything about it," said school board member Joe Battle in an interview. Battle also faces reelection in November.

"I had no idea the meeting was canceled. The meeting is still needed. The tension is still there," said Thelma Williams, who accused Andersen of "wanting to keep things quiet," until after the election.

"She is keeping it (the Justice Department meeting) suppressed for political reasons. She doesn't want controversy. She doesn't want to make blacks, browns or whites angry with her (during the election)," Williams said.

"I don't see what happened as racist," Andersen said. "Speaking for myself, I don't see any problem. I don't see a need for a meeting."

Armstrong agreed. "They (Justice Department) are after racial situations," Armstrong said, adding that if the district had difficulties, "We can handle our own problems."

Reed could not be reached for comment.

'Heavy Schedule'

Ed Howden, a mediator for the Justice Department, said Andersen called on Sept. 4 or 5 and cited as a reason for postponing the scheduled Sept. 9 meeting "a heavy board schedule for the month including a budget hearing and regularly scheduled board meetings." Howden said the Justice Department is willing to reschedule a meeting when the community and the board agree on it.

Andersen said in an interview that she wanted to delay the meeting because she thought it could be politicized. "This might be politically motivated," she said of the meeting.

There are six challengers to Andersen and Battle. They are Cynthia Green-Geter, Albert Penalber, Leonard C. Coes, Charles E. Glenn, David K. Corbin and Carol Green.

The Justice Department's Community Relations Service regional office in San Francisco announced in August that it had been monitoring school board meetings during June and July.

Vernon McKinney, a Justice Department mediator and community relations specialist, said that the service had observed "an escalation of tension" in the district and was hoping through a series of meetings to "try and improve relationships between the board and the community." The main function of the service is mediation and conciliation of racial and ethnic tension, according to McKinney.

Call for Investigation

The district had been embroiled in controversy on a couple of fronts. Much of it had swirled around the former superintendent. Knight was suspended with pay June 4 when the board voted 3 to 0 to ask the school district's attorney to investigate allegations of misuse of public funds. An earlier grand jury investigation of similar charges found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Knight resigned July 31 and agreed to drop legal action against the board. In return, the board dropped its investigation and agreed to pay her $154,000 to buy out her contract, which ran through 1987.

Some of Knight's supporters had charged there was racial prejudice in the board's treatment of Knight. Andersen, Hawn and Armstrong are white. Battle and Williams are black, as is Knight. LaVoneia Steele, who is black, was appointed as superintendent on Tuesday.

On another front, the board has squabbled for more than a year with the city over the use of a park the school district wants to use for a $34-million high school. Public hearings were held this month and one is scheduled for Oct. 1 on an environmental impact study conducted on Ham Park and another site that encompasses Zody's department store, Super Food Warehouse grocery store and property owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Academy and church. A final report will be made to the board Oct. 15.

Decision Promised

Andersen said that following the hearing, the board would "look at the facts and make a decision" on a school site after the election.

Lynwood has a population of 51,900, according to the latest figures released by the state Department of Finance population research unit. According to the Lynwood Chamber of Commerce, 20% of the population is white, 34.8% black, 43.2% Hispanic and 2% other groups. According to City Clerk Andrea Hooper, the city has 16,267 registered voters.

In addition to the school board elections, three incumbents are up for reelection to the Lynwood City Council. There are nine challengers to councilmen E. L. Morris, James Rowe and Louis Thompson. Seeking election are Charles Dickens, Alfreddie Johnson Jr., Bento Miranda, Iris Pygatt, Louis Heine, Carlos P. Manlapaz, Lee Sampson, Evelyn Wells and David James Willis Jr.

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