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Rio Schools Chief Fired by Trustees

Superintendent of the Oxnard-area district is dismissed after the grand jury says she improperly sought a bilingual program.

June 14, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Brushing off threats of a possible lawsuit, a sharply divided Rio School District Board of Trustees voted Friday to fire embattled Supt. Yolanda Benitez after the grand jury concluded this week that she aggressively and improperly sought to impose a pro-bilingual educational program in the largely Latino elementary school district.

Citing the grand jury's findings as well as those of the district's own internal investigation, school board President Ron Mosqueda said trustees had little choice but to fire Benitez, who was suspended with pay in March.

Board members Henrietta Macias and Ernest Almanza joined Mosqueda in the 3-2 vote.

"The district faces a lot of issues at this time and the charges against Ms. Benitez are very serious," Mosqueda said. "Those charges, compounded with the grand jury's report, put us in a position that we had to move forward with new leadership."

Benitez, who has said repeatedly that her ouster is politically motivated, vowed to sue the district to restore her reputation. Because her contract does not expire until 2006, she will also be seeking $360,000 in salary and an undisclosed amount for benefits owed to her.

"We will obviously get down to the bottom of things," said a weary Benitez, who was joined by a small group of supporters at the special board meeting where her termination was announced. "I'm not looking forward to the lawsuit, but if that's the only way we can clear my name, then that's what will have to be done."

Trustee Simon Ayala, who along with trustee Anthony Ramos remains a Benitez supporter, lamented the board's action against her.

"Bottom line is, we just lost a very good superintendent," he said. "We're playing around with a woman's career and with the financial resources of a district."

Benitez's firing is the culmination of months of name-calling and personal accusations in the politically charged controversy swirling around the superintendent, who has led the district for the last eight years.

Last month, Benitez was apprised of 15 separate charges leveled against her, ranging from insubordination to manipulating low-income parents to keep their children in bilingual programs by offering them food and clothing.

Then on Monday, the Ventura County Grand Jury weighed in on the controversy, issuing a 10-page report concluding that district administrators "actively solicited" parents to sign waivers allowing their children to be taught in Spanish.

The waiver request forms issued by the district were designed in such a way as to encourage parents to choose bilingual over English-only education, the grand jury said. The administrators' actions run contrary to policies outlined in the state education code, the panel added.

Benitez maintains that she did nothing wrong and that the district complied with the law.

Her firing is not expected to end the political bickering on the board or even among parents in the tiny blue-collar community near Oxnard. Leaders of a campaign to oust board members Mosqueda and Macias believe they'll soon have the 2,100 signatures needed to force a recall election.

Also, Benitez's lawyers may seek punitive damages against individual board members. They maintain that Benitez's right to a fair hearing was violated, and that the district's investigation of her administration was inaccurate and incomplete, and as a result did not meet the legal standard to terminate her contract.

During Friday's often-contentious meeting, members on both sides of the Benitez controversy aired their grievances. Several in attendance also complained that the board had deliberately scheduled its meeting in the morning when most parents would not be able to attend.

Anthony Zarate, 14, who has collected more than 200 signatures from his peers in support of Benitez, pleaded with board members to listen to the district's students.

"For months I've seen a district and community fall apart," said the eighth-grader at Rio Del Valle School. "I've seen students suffer because of the decisions you as board members have made."

But Benitez's detractors have denounced her as inefficient and insubordinate to those board members with whom she disagreed. In February, trustees voted 3-0 to place her on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation of her administration. Ayala and Ramos did not cast votes.

The board's action cast a spotlight on the ongoing and highly public feud between Benitez and her longtime rival, county Supervisor John Flynn, whose 5th District includes El Rio.

Benitez, who supported Flynn's opponent in the last election, charged that Flynn actively campaigned for Macias' election to the board last November in order to replace her.

Flynn denied the charge again Friday.

"I've tried to make it clear that I don't control the Rio School District Board of Trustees," he said. "That's a real insult to the people on that board."

Still, Benitez's supporters continue to believe that politics brought her down.

"They had this planned from day one," said George Perez, a parent and former board member of the Rio School District. "If they wanted to let her go, they should've done that, but that wasn't enough. They wanted to squash her."

Meanwhile, the school board must decide whether to begin a search for a new superintendent or negotiate a contract with interim manager Patrick Faverty. If trustees choose to go outside the district for a permanent replacement, the board will likely begin its search after its next meeting, scheduled for the end of the month.

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