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Feud Playing Role in School Race

October 24, 2002|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn is taking his political feud with Rio school district Supt. Yolanda Benitez to the streets in a door-to-door campaign to elect two challengers to a school board that could fire Benitez.

Although Flynn denies his goal is to oust the superintendent, community activists say the idea behind the effort is to reform the school board -- a panel they say is controlled by Benitez -- and remove her if necessary.

"If we go after Benitez, it will bring some accountability to the other board members," said Soledad Trevino of Citizens for Educational Responsibility, a group that says its aim is to improve El Rio schools.

"We need some independent thinking brought to the process," Trevino said.

Flynn, who represents El Rio, is walking neighborhoods on evenings and weekends, distributing a newsletter created by the citizens' group. It urges residents to vote for challengers Staci DePolo and Henrietta Macias and to reelect school board member Ron Mosqueda, a Benitez critic.

The rift between the supervisor and the superintendent -- both strong-willed, influential leaders -- has divided the unincorporated, working-class town of 9,100 and pitted two well-known Democrats against each other.

"It's a matter of public record, this dispute between Yolanda and John," former county Democratic Party Chairman Hank Lacayo said. "It's politics and you expect these kinds of fireworks. The only difference is that Yolanda's not an elected official.

"It's sort of sad because we're dealing with something that has to do with education and kids," Lacayo said. "I wish they'd find some common ground and consider the effect on the whole community."

The duo have quarreled ever since Benitez broke ranks and supported Flynn's challenger, Francisco Dominguez, in the 2000 supervisorial race.

But Flynn said his stumping for trustee candidates in the Nov. 5 election has nothing to do with past clashes. He said his involvement stems from the district's unwillingness to cooperate in providing recreational programs for children at El Rio's new $3-million gymnasium.

"My concern is that I'm not able to serve the children and young adults in the community as far as recreational activities are concerned," Flynn said. "The present people in charge of the district -- a majority of the board of trustees and the superintendent -- have for whatever reason been unable to cooperate on the use of the gymnasium."

Benitez declined to comment on Flynn's role in the race except to say, "I want everybody to be sure to get their facts correct and not let this turn into an attack on anyone."

But El Rio school board President Anthony Ramos, a Benitez backer, said Flynn should stay out of the campaign.

"What he should be concerned with is county business and his board and leave Rio with the Rio school board," Ramos said. "We have a race based on personalities rather than on what's good for children."

If elected, the Flynn-backed candidates could change the tone of the five-member school board, whose majority is represented by Ramos, Simon Ayala and George Perez.

Ayala, Perez and Mosqueda are up for reelection. In addition to Macias and DePolo, a third challenger is former Rio school board member Jean Mattson, whom Ramos supports.

"I believe the community is very satisfied with the direction we set and that Yolanda is implementing," Ramos said. "I don't think that's an issue. The issue is we need to continue what we started and see where it takes us."

But Macias, a union organizer with United Food and Commercial Workers, said change is needed for El Rio's 4,000 public schoolchildren. She entered the race, Macias said, because of concerns over test scores, district spending and teacher retention.

"I don't know what kind of job [Benitez] is doing, to tell you the truth," Macias said. "I'm not going to put the blame on her. If I'm supported by John Flynn, then I'm happy about it. He's done a lot for our community. But this has nothing to do with John Flynn."

Mosqueda said he was impressed with Benitez when she came to the district eight years ago. But his support has diminished, especially after seeing the latest Stanford 9 test scores that show "69% of our eighth-graders couldn't spell," he said.

Scores posted on the state Department of Education's Web site show 31% of eighth-grade students in the district performed at or above the 50th percentile in spelling.

"After eight years under her leadership, maybe it's time for a change," Mosqueda said. "This is a critical, critical election. The test scores aren't lying."

Flynn said he is merely responding to residents who want some help in the gymnasium dispute. "That's my reason and my only reason for being involved in this campaign," Flynn said. "If Yolanda Benitez was to decide to cooperate ... then my issues would disappear."

Built with state, county and school district money, the gym was mostly idle for six months after it opened last year because of squabbling between the county and school district over insurance and who was responsible for managing recreational programs. The district and the county operate it together under a 1997 joint agreement.

The Police Activities League was finally able to provide a program with funding from the Sheriff's Department, the school district and a state grant. But it ran short of money in August and closed. When school opened this fall, there were no after-school activities at the gym.

"It should be a concern of his [Flynn's] because under the joint-use agreement, after-school time is his county time," Ramos said. "The whole point was to have the county provide the programs."

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