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Fired Rio Schools Chief Sues District

October 01, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

Former Rio Supt. Yolanda Benitez, who was fired over allegations of improperly pushing a pro-bilingual agenda in the largely Latino elementary school district, has sued the district and board members over what she contends was a politically motivated campaign to oust her.

In her suit, Benitez accuses the district and board members Ron Mosqueda, Henrietta Macias and Ernesto Almanza of wrongful termination, breach of contract, violation of her constitutional rights and intentionally damaging her reputation.

Benitez, who served eight years as district superintendent, also states in the complaint filed last month that stress from the ordeal has taken a physical and emotional toll on her and has narrowed her chances for future employment.

"This was a wrongful termination of my contract," said Benitez, who has been unable to find employment since the firing in June. "I worked hard for the children of the Rio School District."

Greg Ramirez, the school district's attorney, declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say that a response to the complaint would be filed. The board is scheduled to discuss the suit in closed session during tonight's regularly scheduled meeting.

Reached at home Tuesday, Macias said she had no comment. Mosqueda and Almanza did not return calls.

A sharply divided board voted 3 to 2 in June to fire Benitez for aggressively and improperly seeking to impose a pro-bilingual educational program, citing a grand jury's findings as well as the district's own internal investigation of her administration.

Benitez's firing was the culmination of months of name-calling and personal attacks stemming from the controversy surrounding the strained relationship between the superintendent and the three board members.

The board earlier this year commissioned an investigation of Benitez. In May, she was told of 15 charges leveled against her in the probe, ranging from insubordination to keeping the children of low-income parents in bilingual education programs by offering them food and candy.

The next month, the Ventura County Grand Jury issued a 10-page report, which concluded that school 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 to encourage parents to choose bilingual over English-only education, the grand jury found.

But Benitez vehemently denied the allegations, citing her exemplary job performance evaluations.

She also accused the board and the grand jury of conducting biased and inadequate investigations, in part because several key administrators and teachers were never interviewed. She also noted that an audit failed to find any evidence of fiscal mismanagement.

In her lawsuit, Benitez alleges that her longtime nemesis, Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn, whose district includes El Rio, worked with school board members to remove her in retaliation for the endorsing of Flynn's opponent in the 2000 supervisorial election.

It was a "substantial motivating factor in the defendants' decisions to place plaintiff on administrative leave, investigate her on trumped up charges, terminate her employment, deprive her of her procedural right and publicly humiliate and defame her ... ," according to the complaint.

Flynn dismissed the allegations Tuesday. "That's her story, not mine," he said. "I'm not going to react to something she's saying about me."

Despite his role in her ouster, Flynn is not named in the suit because, unlike the board members, he was not an actual "perpetrator" in Benitez's firing, said attorney Celia Ruiz, who is representing Benitez.

In addition to compensation for loss of pay and benefits, emotional distress, loss of future employability and legal fees, Benitez is seeking unspecified punitive damages from Mosqueda, Macias and Almanza, as well as a judicial declaration that will clear her name and reputation.

In her suit, Benitez contends that she has lost 20 pounds and, upon instruction from her doctor, begun taking antidepressants for severe situational depression since her termination.

Cruz said she is prepared to take this case to trial, where she is confident a jury will side with Benitez.

"I've been doing this many, many years and I've never seen anything this outrageous," Ruiz said. "With cases with facts of this nature, it's not unusual to get verdicts in the millions of dollars. It didn't have to go this way."

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