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Grand Jury Report Critical of Rio District

The panel concludes that educators pushed waivers from English instruction, dividing the community and hurting teacher morale.

June 10, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Rio School District administrators "actively solicited" parents to seek waivers allowing their children to be taught in Spanish rather than English, polarizing the community over the issue of bilingual education and leading to poor morale and high turnover of teaching staff, a Ventura County Grand Jury investigation has concluded.

"Parent waiver request forms issued by the Rio School District appeared to be tailored to trigger a response that would require a waiver from English language education," according to the grand jury's 10-page report released Monday. Administrators' actions run contrary to policies outlined in the state education code, the panel said.

"The findings are more severe than what I'd anticipated," said school board member Ron Mosqueda, one of three trustees who have been critical of Supt. Yolanda Benitez's administration. "There are some serious findings here, and we really have to do something about it."

The grand jury probe is the latest episode in an ongoing feud that has erupted over how the tiny rural school district near Oxnard is managed and how it is dealing with the politically divisive issue of bilingual education.

At the center of the debate is Benitez, who was recently suspended pending an internal investigation into allegations that she aggressively sought to impose a pro-Latino, pro-bilingual education in the elementary school district.

But Benitez's supporters said Monday that the grand jury's findings were skewed by the limited scope of the panel's investigation, and they fear it will be used by the superintendent's political rivals who want to replace her. They said the 19-member grand jury arrived at erroneous conclusions about the district's educational programs without interviewing key players, such as the district's bilingual teachers and administrators who keep state compliance records.

"This has always been a witch hunt, and unfortunately it continues to be," said board member Anthony Ramos, a Benitez supporter. "They want to find something, so they're drafting it in a way that makes you think there's a problem."

Ed Lacey, Benitez's attorney, said he also was concerned about how the grand jury conducted its investigation.

"It's basically just a series of conclusions they've apparently reached, but it doesn't say how they got to their conclusions," he said. "It kind of raises more questions than it answers."

In its report, the grand jury said it interviewed several citizen complainants, the parents of some children and other "interested persons." The panel also attended school board meetings, which were described as "noisy and contentious with constant loud, disruptive interchanges between factions of the divided community."

The district's advocacy of Spanish education over English through the waiver system, the grand jury said, further aggravated members of the community, "hurt teacher morale and undermined the appearance of integrity in the hiring practice."

It went on to say that teacher and staff turnover in the last three years has been "unusually high ... more than can be attributed to transfers for higher paying positions."

The debate over Spanish-language instruction has continued to flare since the passage of Proposition 227, a 1998 statewide initiative that sought to limit bilingual education by directing students into English-immersion classes. A provision in the law, however, allowed students with parental waivers to be taught in their native language.

But critics say the waivers serve as a loophole that undermines intended reforms. In the Rio School District, Benitez is accused of providing incentives such as clothing and food to get parents to sign waivers, instructing teachers to tell parents to sign the waivers, failing to inform parents of their rights in bilingual education matters, directing staff not to move deserving students to mainstream English classrooms and to dispose of any job application from people without Latino surnames.

But Benitez maintains that she has done nothing wrong and points to a 2002 California Department of Education review that found the district in compliance with state law. The review commended it for having extensive documentation of its programs, for being "in tune" with its students and for its efforts to provide accelerated learning opportunities for children lagging in academic subjects.

The report suggested that the district increase the time bilingual students spend in English instruction, but largely delivered a positive evaluation.

"We were commended in six different areas and it is irresponsible not to ... review the bilingual education program and this vital state document," Benitez said.

Margaret Luna, a second-grade bilingual teacher, said she was rebuffed when she asked to speak to members of the grand jury. She said she was disappointed the panel seemed uninterested in hearing her opinion.

"Most of the bilingual teachers are very passionate about the program because we're constantly under attack," Luna said. "People don't understand this program. To make a conclusion based on just one side can't be called an investigation."

Benitez is scheduled to respond to the charges against her during a closed-door meeting with the board on Wednesday.

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