Board Majority Reopens Mismanagement Investigation : Lynwood Schools Chief Suspended
During a raucous and emotional meeting Tuesday, the Lynwood Unified School District Board of Education voted to suspend Supt. Charlie Mae Knight while its attorney investigates alleged misconduct and mismanagement by district employees and officials.
Despite disapproving shouts from angry Knight supporters in the audience and from two dissenting board members, the majority voted 3 to 0 for a resolution relieving Knight of her duties immediately. Knight will continue to be paid, while Associate Supt. LaVoneia Steele serves as acting superintendent for the 12,000-student district.
“They have won. This is cold, calculating and heartless,” said Knight in an interview in her office immediately after the meeting. Knight, 53, who has been embroiled in a number of controversies during her four years as superintendent, had already started removing her many plaques and awards from her office walls.
May Look for Job
“I guess I will relax since I’m being paid. Travel around the state. Maybe I’ll look for a job,” said Knight, who receives about $65,000 annually. Her three-year contract runs through 1987.
More than 100 people crowded into the board room, where the district’s attorney, Eric Bathen, was supposed to read the two-page resolution. However, he was never allowed to do so because of shouting protests from the audience and board members Thelma Williams and Joe Battle.
Williams and Battle, who said the resolution had been illegally drawn up, abstained from voting. board President Helen Andersen and board members Richard Armstrong and Willard Hawn Reed voted in favor of the resolution. The resolution states in part that the district had been having serious management problems since 1981 (when Knight was hired) and some of it could involve fraudulent conduct. A 1983 county grand jury audit of the district’s books had " . . . left unanswered many of the allegations,” the resolution states.
The audit, made after allegations of misconduct and misuse of funds were made against Knight and four other employees, found no wrongdoing. But it recommended that the district tighten its management practices.
The resolution states further that the state Department of Education had informed Knight that the district must refund about $267,000 for overcharging the federal lunch program.
Some Problems Found
“In essence,” Knight said, “they are reopening the grand jury investigation after the D.A.'s office, the grand jury and county school officials have all been satisfied.”
Knight said that in April the state Department of Education had audited the district’s lunch program, but there was no indication that the district had to refund $267,000.
“The audit found some problems with cafeteria management, but there was no indication we had to return $267,000. Some meals were not nutritional. The district might not be reimbursed because some claims were not reported on time.
“Some of my people (administrators) indicated that if worse came to worst, we might not be reimbursed for money we had already spent on the lunch program. The $267,000 was a suggested figure. The district is still talking with the state department. Nothing has been settled,” Knight said.
Andersen agreed in part with Knight’s assessment.
“We are reopening the (grand jury) investigation. There were some unanswered questions. There were never any conclusions,” Andersen said. She did not say if the district had additional evidence or indicate why it was reopening the investigation now.
May Have Overcharged
“The $267,000, we just received that. It is a possibility we were charging for more free lunches than we had applications,” Andersen said. “We have so many problems. That is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Andersen said she did not know how long the investigation would take.
One of the four employees investigated during the grand jury audit, Commodore Reid, director of maintenance, asked during Tuesday’s meeting if he would be reinvestigated after being cleared by a 1984 county district attorney’s probe of allegations that he purchased stolen furniture for the district.
Andersen said yes. Reid said the board would be hearing from his lawyer.
“If he was innocent then, he will still be innocent,” Andersen said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, each time Andersen gave Bathen permission to read the resolution, someone in the audience would shout him down.
“He’s not going to read anything. As parents, we have a right to speak,” a man shouted.
“You’re trying to railroad her,” another one said. At one point, during the meeting Andersen threatened to call security officers and have the room cleared.
‘Can’t Make Us Leave’
“We are your boss. We tell you what to do. You can’t make us leave,” shouted former board member V. James Edner.
Williams and Battle contended that the resolution was illegally composed.
“Who drafted this resolution? When did the board meet to do this? And if three board members have met to draft it, they and the lawyer are in violation of the Brown Act (the state open meeting act),” Williams said.
“I join with Mrs. Williams in protest. We have not been consulted. Three members prepared this,” Battle said.
Bathen denied any wrongdoing. He said the resolution had been prepared by him at the request of Andersen with the approval of Armstrong and Reed.
In April, the board had begun action to reduce Knight’s role in the district.
The board majority had agreed in concept April 2 to transfer many of Knight’s duties to Steele. On May 14, the board said it would evaluate the superintendent’s job performance. The evaluation is now on hold, pending the investigation, Andersen said.
Andersen said Bathen, who was hired to draw up a reorganization chart reducing Knight’s role, is in charge of the investigation.
Knight said the board’s majority decided to take its latest action because “I refuse to accept reorganization. I refused to share my power with the associate superintendent. I refused to become just a figurehead.”