High school board censures trustee

NHUHSD Boardmembers Jennifer Knight, Brian Lovell and Colleen Toste at Wednesday's meeting. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

NOHUM – The Northern Humboldt Union High School District’s (NHUHSD) Board of Trustees censured one of its own Tuesday night, citing multiple instances of misbehavior.

Boardmember Jennifer Knight was accused of conflict of interest, abuse of her position, inappropriate and misleading comments, disclosure of confidential information, bizarre personal behavior, even lying and making a racially insensitive remark.

The allegations were contained in a resolution wrought by district Superintendent Roger Macdonald in collaboration with the school district’s attorney.

Following a lengthy and at times dramatic discussion before about two dozen community members in the McKinleyville High School Library, Resolution 5/2017-8 was adopted unanimously by the board, save for Knight, who did not vote.

A searing hearing

After a reading of the resolution by Macdonald, public speaker and Arcata High teacher JoAnn Moore called Knight “a liability to this district” and to taxpayers, and called on the board to censure Knight and for her to step down.

“I do not trust you,” Moore said. “You need to resign.”

Several colleagues acknowledged that Knight’s heart was in the right place and offered expressions of confidence in her core values. Still, they said, her behavior has been over the top on a chronic basis, and informal efforts to get her to play well with others have been met only with frustration at the escalating abuses.

“I know you don’t mean any disrespect,” Macdonald said, adding that intentions aren’t the point as much as consequences to the district.

The net effects, said Knight’s critics, are to tarnish the district’s reputation, demoralize the staff and students, discourage volunteers and consume vast amounts of resources better spent on education.

Boardmember Brian Gerving said three superintendents had tried to work with her to temper her excesses to no avail, leaving censure the only option. He said Knight’s contributions didn’t negate his concerns about her ongoing behavior. “This conduct, in my mind, goes beyond that,” he said.

Least critical was boardmember Dana Silvernale, who acknowledged friendship with Knight. She said some details of the resolution were inaccurate, but declined Macdonald’s invitation to specify which ones. “There are a couple of whereases that don’t belong in it,” she said.

Silvernale said she would prefer that Knight’s issues be handled via a “restorative justice” process rather than as a board meeting matter. “I’m really uncomfortable with this process,” she said.

Boardmember Brian Lovell, seated next to but leaning away from Knight, said he’d given Knight the benefit of the doubt during consideration of a committee appointment she’d opposed, and abstained from voting. Since then, he’d realized that “there was no there here” and become “severely disappointed.”

“I lost my trust in you that night,” Lovell said. “I think you should resign.”

Knight disputed the censure resolution’s accuracy.  She acknowledged that some points were valid but said it was “riddled with misunderstandings.”

She stressed that several of her supposed offenses were merely a result of her defending the district’s “policies and procedures,” a phrase she repeated multiple times over the course of the meeting.

She denied acting to promote any personal agenda. “It’s always been about policies and procedures and do we follow our own policies and procedures,” she insisted.

One matter Knight adamantly disputed was the characterization as racially insensitive a remark she had made at a county educational workshop about “... knowing what it is like to be a black person because she was a punk rocker.”

Knight spoke with passion about her efforts on behalf of students of color, Latinos and Native Americans, her advocacy for ethnic studies and concerns about minority overrepresentation in the school disciplinary process. She called the allegation of insensitivity “pretty slanderous.”

At one point she invoked 19th century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who cautioned against tyranny of the majority and the silencing of minorities.

“I think I’ve been admonished sufficiently, and I’ve expressed remorse,” Knight said. She continued to condemn the censure resolution as “riddled with falsehoods.”

Macdonald repeatedly implored Knight to correct any inaccuracies in the resolution, which he described as an important document. He said it had been compiled conservatively and with great effort and investment of his time. “This was a burden placed on me to ensure that only accurate information is in there,” he said.

But other than insisting that the racial comment was “taken out of context,” Knight declined to offer any point-by-point revisions, saying she’d not had time to scrutinize the document in detail over the weekend due to family obligations.

The embattled trustee accused other unnamed boardmembers of comparable infractions such as missing a key meeting. “There’s nothing in our policies and procedures that say you have to go to every meeting,” she said. “I should not be held to a higher standard than your other boardmembers,” Knight said, her voice rising with emotion.

“My emotions do not mean I’m not rational,” she said. She then accused her colleagues of acting as “judge, jury and executioner.”

She said that her previous apologies were being ignored, placing her in a position of “double jeopardy” with the looming censure. She wanted the resolution revised, but still didn't specifying revisions as Macdonald had repeatedly asked.

'Policies and procedures'

But the superintendent and her fellow boardmembers weren’t having it.

“The reason that this is here is because staff and the members of the board feel like their informal communication with you isn’t working,” Macdonald said. “This is a way to help you see that your behavior is so far out of bounds … and all you’re being asked to do is not do it anymore.”

After some further and somewhat repetitive pushback by Knight about inaccuracies and misunderstandings, Board President Colleen Toste, who had been silent through the proceeding, spoke up with a forceful, four-point jeremiad summarizing her reasons for supporting the censure.

Toste said that regardless of Knight’s intentions in making the racial comment, people were deeply offended by a boardmember saying such a thing. “I talked to these people,” Toste said, “and it was terrible.”

She said that skipping the board’s annual budget approval meeting on a false premise was both inexcusable and a violation of the board’s by-laws.

“You shared with us that you were out of town,” Toste said. She said she had been leaving the Humboldt County Office of Education to drive to McKinleyville for that night’s budget meeting when she saw Knight sitting on a bench there.

This left just two boardmembers, Toste and Gerving, wondering whether they’d have a quorum to approve the district’s budget at what Toste said was perhaps the most important board meeting of the year.

Toste further denied that the resolution mischaracterized Knight’s actions. “There are not falsehoods in the document,” she said.

But she was most insistent, even somewhat indignant, in countering Knight’s repeated claims about adhering to policies and procedures. "I find it really ironic that you are reiterating that the district must follow  'policies and procedures' when you are continuing to violate 10 by-laws and policies," Toste said in exasperated tones, alluding to the charges in the resolution and slapping the table for emphasis. This brought a wave of applause from the audience.

Continued Toste, "And we ask you to stop, and you don't. And we ask you again to stop, and you don't. And months go by, and we ask you to stop, and you don't. Every single one of these by-laws and policies that we've reiterated and requested, we've instructed you, we've trained, we've had training, and over and over and over you are refusing to follow them."

Knight contested that her behavior was objectionable at multiple meetings, and further noted that another unnamed member had also missed a key meeting, one at which Macdonald had been hired. "We have to follow policies and procedures as a district, we have to follow what's written in the handbooks and I have to follow policies and procedures as a boardmember," she said. "Missing a meeting isn't a violation of our policies and procedures. It's not in our policies and procedures."

"There you go again," objected Lovell, identifying himself as the boardmember Knight was anonymously citing. He said he had worked out his vacation-related absence well in advance. "You cannot deflect your problem on me for something I took care of in a reasonable way," Lovell said.

McKinleyville High School Principal Nic Collart said Knight had a "big heart for underrepresented youth and ethnic minorities." But he said he was present at the training meeting at which Knight had made the remark likening being a black male to being a punk rocker in San Francisco, and that it "minimized to me the African-American male experience." He said others present, who didn't know the context or her good intentions, were unsettled by the statement as well. "I did not feel it was appropriate," Collart said.

Gerving said that Knight's critical statements about Arcata High coaches in a previous meeting could follow them around forever. "You can't apologize away some of these actions," he said. "If you Google their names now, I'm sure that you'll find mentions of this process," he said. Taken at face value, Gerving said, the online record could suggest that there was some validity to her "hurtful" criticisms and unfairly taint the coaches' reputations from here on out.

Toste said the time for mere contrition and ad hoc apologies had passed. "Honestly, if there were a violation once, one one by-law, you could apologize that away. If there were another one a year later, maybe you could apologize that away. But over and over and this one and that one and that one and this one," she said. "I can't allow our staff and our families and our district to continue this way ... it's not fair to our hardworking staff members and our hardworking parents who care about their kids' education. It's not OK."

Knight then made one last stand, contesting that there was any pattern of repeated offenses and again challenging the resolution's accuracy. "I'd like to ask what other meetings this was a problem at," she demanded. "We have two instances here which I've apologized for, but this isn't a consistent thing that happens at every board meeting. It just doesn't."

She accused the board of piling on in the resolution and looking for reasons to censure her. "We're looking for all these reasons to find censure," she said. She challenged her colleagues to cite any other meetings where she had behaved inappropriately.

"Tonight," Lovell said.

Gerving then moved to adopt the resolution, and Lovell seconded the motion. The vote followed, and the censure resolution was adopted with no opposition.

It was the NHUHSD board's most significant self-policing since 2013, when it called for the resignation of then-member Dan Johnson for plagiarizing a commencement address. He apologized but didn't resign.



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