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NoHum board censures trustee

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Four members of the Northern Humboldt Union School board voted Nov. 14 to publicly reprimand fellow trustee Jennifer Knight, using the most severe remedy at their disposal to address what several described as a pattern of unacceptable behavior that left no other recourse.

Board President Colleen Toste told Knight that an isolated incident here or there might be apologized away but she has continued to violate at least 10 board bylaws and policies unabated even after attempted interventions by other trustees, administrators and staff.

"I can't allow our district to continue this way," Toste said.

In a later interview, Knight reiterated much of what she said during the meeting — that her intentions have been misunderstood or misconstrued and she believes she is unfairly being singled out but is also ready to move forward.

"I figure it's just going to stick and people are going to think the worst of me and that's just what it going to be, and I don't know how to make it right," Knight said.

In the end, Knight said, she was simply speaking up to insist that the district follow policies and procedures, but acknowledges she became frustrated at times and "did lose my cool" but added it didn't happen frequently.

"It's a small-town mess and I feel very remorseful and have apologized for it," Knight said while stating emphatically that she disagrees with much of what's outlined in resolution for her censure — which basically amounts to a public scolding but otherwise carries no official weight.

The resolution states that the board "wishes to condemn Ms. Knight's actions in the strongest possible terms available to it as a governing body" and specifically directs Knight "to abstain from voting on any and all matters which pertain to her personal or familial interests, including matters which relate to her sister's complaint filed in December 2016, and to conduct herself in a manner becoming a representative of this community."

Examples given in the five-page document include her reportedly disrespectful treatment of parents and staff and using her position to push a complaint her sister filed last year over the Arcata High basketball team's selection process.

Knight said that her involvement with the grievance again circles back to her concerns about procedures being followed and it was never about her nephew.

"It's not a complaint about certain people being cut from the team," she said. While issues with Knight's conduct have reportedly been ongoing for about two years, the situation hit a tipping point Oct. 10 when she pulled the names of Arcata High varsity basketball coach Ryan Bisio and junior varsity coach Graham Johnson off a routine list of hires.

Knight later stunned the room by publicly excoriating parent volunteer Carolyn Perkins as "unfit" to serve on a district committee, handing out as "evidence" a private email from Perkins that she had acquired which raised concerns about Knight's sister's grievance.

Perkins, a social worker and mother of four, was near tears later that evening as she defended herself, describing the experience as "wretched."

At the Nov. 14 meeting, Knight vacillated between apologizing and maintaining she was being treated unfairly as she vehemently opposed the censure, repeatedly saying that she had not been afforded legal counsel despite the purely symbolic nature of the board's action.

As her arguments reaching a febrile pitch, Knight called the resolution "a slanderous document" and said the board was "acting like judge, jury and executioner," noting that being emotional doesn't mean she's not "rational."

After calming down, Knight continued to insist that her actions have been misinterpreted and while mistakes have been made she was just trying to make sure proper policies and procedures were followed, including follow through on her sister's complaint.

She also apologized for any appearance of impropriety and said as soon as she was notified she should recuse herself she did so."We can move forward," Knight said. "I hear what people are saying but I also feel that some of the concerns that are being expressed are being taken out of context."

While noting several times that she disagreed with items in the censure, Knight said the meeting "was not the forum" to go through the document with a "fine-tooth comb," despite Superintendent Roger Macdonald's encouragement to do just that.

Knight said later that perhaps she should have but while she's prepared for meetings, she wasn't "prepared to defend myself from a document riddled with errors."

At the Nov. 14 meeting, Knight also said she had already apologized for some of the events described in the resolution and bringing them again was akin to "double jeopardy."

Trustee Brian Gerving responded that he didn't believe anything about the document was the equivalent of a serial prosecution, telling Knight, "you haven't been convicted of a crime."

Macdonald said the resolution was written by the district's attorney based on a compilation of information provided by trustees and staff, adding that there were more items the district could have added.

"This is a way to help you see that your behavior is so far out of bounds," Macdonald said to Knight.

About two dozen people stayed to hear the censure discussion, which was the last action item on the agenda, with three public speakers addressing the board to take issue with Knight's conduct.

Two, along with several board members during their discussion, acknowledged Knight was a passionate person who often asked compelling questions but said her other actions have overshadowed those positive qualities.

Perkins asked Knight to realize her actions in the past have been "cruel, unreasonable and oppressive," and called on the other trustees to vote in favor of the censure resolution.

Arcata English teacher JoAnn Moore was blunt in her assessment of the situation.

She told Knight her conduct had not only created a loss of trust between the community and the district but her conduct toward Bisio and Graham, whose hires were approved at a later meeting, opened the door to possible legal action.

"You need to do the right thing, Jennifer. .... You need to resign," Moore said.

Trustee Brian Lovell agreed. After Knight's actions at the Oct. 10 meeting, Lovell said he will be "leery" about anything she has to say in the future.

"I have to say, Jennifer, I lost my trust in you that night," he told her.

Trustee Dana Silvernale, who acknowledged that she had a friendship with Knight outside of the board, said she wished there was a more "compassionate" way to handle the situation, like restorative justice.

Silvernale also noted that she has tried to talk with Knight "numerous times about her emotional issues" and found most but not all of what was in the censure resolution to be accurate.

Meanwhile, rumors of a recall effort continue to swirl with the district taking the possibility seriously enough that staff asked the elections office for a cost estimate, which came back at $7,500 to $9,000 — if it was held in conjunction with the June primary.

Technically, Knight was appointed to the position in December of 2015 as one of two candidates who applied for the same number of open seats that year, with the other going to fellow trustee Brian Gerving.

It's not an uncommon scenario in Humboldt County with its 32 school districts competing alongside dozens of special districts to each find five community members to serve on the respective boards.

As the public's recourse for removing an elected official from office before the next election cycle, the multi-prong recall process would require any proponents to gather at least 6,000 signatures — or 20 percent of voters registered in the Northern Humboldt Union High School District — to bring the question of whether Knight should continue on the board to the ballot.

That could prove difficult.

By comparison, only about 8,000 of the nearly 30,000 registered voters eligible to cast ballots for Northern Humboldt Union High School District candidates took the time to vote in the last contested race back in November of 2013.

For his part, the superintendent noted that he hopes to see the district move forward with staff now being allowed to focus their attention on what's most important — the students.

"I know that we can heal from this and that's is something that we need to do," Macdonald said at the end of the meeting.

Knight said she joined to the school board because she wanted to help ensure children in the district have "safe and equal" access to a quality education and she is ready to concentrate on those issues.

She emphasized in her interview with the Journal this week that she's done "many good things," too, and said she will be more careful moving forward so the things she says are not misunderstood.

"I think it's behind us, hopefully," Knight said of the censure. "I'm really hopeful."

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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