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Former administrator Jim Knight takes Hernando County School Board to task

BROOKSVILLE — When Jim Knight approached the lectern at Tuesday night's Hernando County School Board meeting, his attire served as the first reminder that he no longer worked for the school district.

Knight, who retired last month after two decades as director of student services, sported khaki pants and a short-sleeve, button-down shirt. It was a jarring contrast to the suit and tie he wore to work each day.

But Knight's comments served as the most striking cue that he is no longer a dutiful soldier for the district.

Here was a former top-level administrator who had worked under numerous superintendents and grappled with some of the district's most controversial issues, from school rezoning to student expulsions. Now he was completely free to speak his mind in a public forum.

"I have observed some school boards make some good decisions and some not-so-good decisions," said Knight, 59, reading from a typed statement as a roomful of parents, principals and district staffers looked on. "Some were influenced by as few as five citizen calls or 20 people showing up at a workshop or board meeting. The staff at the back table, all of our students, and all of their parents cannot afford any not-so-good decisions anymore."

Past boards and members of the current one have appointed committees to come up with recommendations on a variety of topics, then rejected that guidance, Knight said.

"Each time the board has gone against the recommendations of their committee, there have been problems," he said.

Knight cited the issue the board had debated for more than two hours during a workshop earlier Tuesday: Should neighborhood attendance zones be created around Challenger K-8 and Chocachatti Elementary schools so students who live near those magnet schools are granted automatic admission? It's the same issue that he would later say motivated him to show up that night to say his piece.

A 40-member committee of parents and staffers tasked with shifting attendance boundaries before Challenger opened in 2005 had recommended that the school have a partial neighborhood zone coupled with a science and technology magnet, Knight said.

"They were overruled, and now you will be dealing with the repercussions tonight," Knight said.

It was a reference to the parade of parents who, as expected, showed up to speak against a proposal to phase in neighborhood zones for the two schools. Eventually, under the proposal, neighborhood students could comprise as much as 40 percent the schools' populations. The board decided during Tuesday's workshop to table the idea.

Knight also reminded board members, including two who were on the board at the time, that a committee of teachers, parents and community members had recommended six names to fill an opening for superintendent.

"Instead, the board chose No. 24 and we were blessed with Dr. (Wayne) Alexander," Knight said, prompting chuckles from the crowd.

"Do what is best for all the children and don't do what will be popular, helps only your friends or will benefit only your family members," Knight said. "This is unethical, illegal and just plain wrong in these or any times."

Knight urged the board to make tough decisions and stand behind them. The room burst into applause.

If board members took offense, they didn't show it. The longest serving members, John Sweeney and Dianne Bonfield, told the Times after the meeting that they welcomed Knight's input.

"I think it's delightful because so many people, when they retire, make tracks out of here so fast, and to still be involved was commendable," Bonfield said.

Neither Bonfield nor Sweeney said they were surprised by Knight's candor. Sweeney said he thought most of Knight's sentiments applied to years prior to the current board.

"I got a sense he wanted to say more than he did," Sweeney said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him back again."

Before retiring last month, Knight made a promise to his co-workers to speak out on issues once he was no longer on the payroll.

He made the vow for the staff, for the students and for himself, Knight said in an interview Wednesday.

"I feel a part of this district," he said. "I've made a commitment to people that if there are things that need to be said, I will say them because I have nothing to lose."

• • •

A native of Gainesville who moved to Spring Hill in 1975, Knight initially worked as an administrator for what was then the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, overseeing foster care, child abuse and other programs in Hernando and three other counties.

He joined the school district in 1987, working as a dropout prevention counselor for two years at a time when the district had about 8,000 students, about one-third of its current population. After a short stint as student services coordinator, then-superintendent Harold "Butch" Winkler put him in the director's post.

In that role, Knight contributed to or oversaw committees that dealt with the always contentious process of shifting school boundaries to even out student populations. He was a member of the committee that recommended Challneger open with a partial neighborhood zone to ease overcrowding at other schools. Then-superintendent Wendy Tellone and three board members did not welcome that, he said.

"We were told our job was not to talk about magnet schools," Knight said.

In his role as director, Knight presided over expulsion hearings, expelling an average of seven students a year.

Even more difficult than that, he said, was rejecting special attendance requests. The district received about 2,200 last year, some from families stuck with logistical problems, others who wanted their children to attend special programs at other schools. They were all vying for a finite number of spots.

"That's the toughest, saying no to people," he said.

• • •

Knight declined to cite specifics when asked about his comment to the board about putting the best interests of the district over those of family and friends. He noted, though, that there were times, mainly under Alexander's tenure, when the superintendent would overrule the hardship committee's decision.

"We knew it was board members who'd called him," Knight said.

The 21/2 years working under Alexander, who left in 2009 under a cloud of controversy, were difficult, he said.

"Let's be real," Knight said. "My opinion was that he should have never been made superintendent. All of us knew his goal was to be superintendent somewhere else."

Knight said his relationship with Blavatt contrasted with that experience. Both men said they were able to talk through disagreements. Knight, for example, took issue with one of Blavatt's recommended reorganization plans that would have cut the director's position after Knight retired, putting assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson in charge of the department and other programs. That would have put a lot more work on department coordinator Mary-Grace Surrena, whom Knight spent years grooming to take his place. The board later rejected the plan.

"I gotta respect him," Blavatt said Wednesday of Knight's disagreement with him. "He was straight up about it."

Blavatt, who has a background in student services, said Knight's institutional memory was invaluable and his skills were top-notch.

"I had a lot of faith in Jim," he said.

During his comments Tuesday, Knight raised the specter of "probably the toughest economic times this school district has faced since the Depression."

He said Wednesday he was encouraged by the board's recent decision to cut bus service for students who live within 2 miles of schools to save money. But he worried that even more wrenching decisions, such as furloughs for employees, might be on the horizon.

"(Board members) have to realize that they're going to make people angry and it may cause them to not get re-elected," he said, "but that's when you do your job no matter what the cost."

Knight has not ruled out his own bid for School Board. He lives in District 4, the seat currently held by Chairman James Yant. Knight said he would not run against Yant, who has not said whether he plans to seek re-election next year.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Former administrator Jim Knight takes Hernando County School Board to task 10/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 8:41pm]

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