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Published in Print: October 17, 2001, as Calif. District Faces State Takeover For Spec. Ed. Woes

Calif. District Faces State Takeover For Spec. Ed. Woes

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A California school district has six months to shape up its special education programs or face a state takeover of the entire school system.

Charlie Mae Knight

The Ravenswood City Elementary School District, located in East Palo Alto in the northern part of the state, has been under a consent decree since last year that outlined grave deficiencies in its special education program following a four-year legal battle.

But plaintiffs in the 1996 federal lawsuit that led to the consent decree grew frustrated this year when a court monitor assigned to the case reported that the district was making little progress. Among the deficiencies cited were the district's failure to adopt special education policies and procedures and its lack of properly trained and supervised staff members.

The plaintiffs—the parents of Ravenswood special education students— asked that the district be held in contempt for violating the consent decree mandated by the federal court in March.

The state education department, a defendant in the case, has given up as well, asking the court to hand control of the 5,300-student district to state officials.

"There is a pattern by the district of noncommunication and complete refusal to work with the [California Department of Education]," said Doug Stone, a spokesman for the department. "When the door is shut in your face, there is nothing much you can see."

Still, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson "reluctantly" gave Ravenswood one last chance this month, citing the unprecedented nature of a federal court order to shift control of the district to the state in California. He said the court monitor in the case had painted a "grim picture of a district massively out of compliance with special education requirements." The district has until March to comply with the order.

Judge Henderson had a stern warning for the district, however: "This is not to say that this court is required to stand passively by for an undue time while students continue to be deprived of critical services and suffer possible irreparable injury."

Money Woes?

Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight said that while she was grateful Judge Henderson had given the district more time to comply with the court order, she believes the state and federal governments also should be held accountable for fulfilling the needs of Ravenswood's special education students.

Ms. Knight, who has led the district for 16 years, said the special education budget has been increased from $4 million to $6 million this year. That means that almost 20 percent of Ravenswood's $31 million overall budget goes to serve its 500 special education students, she said.

The increase means teachers won't receive raises this year, she added.

Superintendent Knight described the school system as the poorest district in San Mateo County, the second-richest county in California. She claimed that Ravenswood is being singled out while other California school districts also fail to meet special education standards.

"We cannot fight this giant," Ms. Knight said, referring to the court order. "We're hoping to get enough attention from someone to say, 'We will help you pay for this.'"

But fight is all Ravenswood has done, said Rony Sagy, a San Francisco- based lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ms. Sagy said the district won't acknowledge that it has a problem with its special education program.

The district has blatantly ignored the needs of special education students, especially those who don't speak English, Ms. Sagy contended. The enrollment of the K-8 district has shifted from 80 percent African-American in the mid-1980s to 70 percent Hispanic today.

"The superintendent looks at it as a political issue—that people are after her because she's an African- American and she's a woman," Ms. Sagy said.

Superintendent Knight indeed believes there are those who would like to see her leave the district as the community gains popularity with Silicon Valley employees seeking homes closer to work.

In July, Ms. Knight was acquitted of 19 felony counts on charges of violating state conflict-of-interest laws for signing district loans to employees who rented her homes or owed her money. She called herself an "easy mark," but added that she has strong community support.

That support alone may not keep the district out of the state's grasp. Once held in high esteem by state officials, including Gov. Gray Davis, the district now faces an investigation into its finances and management.

Mr. Stone of the state education department confirmed that the San Mateo County superintendent of schools was conducting an extensive financial audit and management probe of the Ravenswood district.

"We do believe the problems are getting worse," he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 7, Page 5

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