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New Debate Embroils Rio School Board

In wake of the former superintendent's dismissal, trustees want D.A. to review a report critical of how bond proceeds were spent.

June 17, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Trustees for the Rio School District have asked the Ventura County district attorney to review results of a financial assessment critical of the way proceeds from a 1997 voter-approved bond measure were spent.

The assessment, presented Tuesday to the Oxnard-area school board, reviewed the expenditure of $20 million in bond money earmarked for construction of a new school and renovation and modernization of aging campuses in the 4,000-student district.

The evaluation found that money was wasted through poor planning, consumed by cost overruns and spent on projects not contemplated until after the bond measure passed. Moreover, the assessment concluded that several projects promised to voters never materialized, including air conditioning and Internet hookups in older classrooms and science labs at the district's junior high school.

"In my opinion, district staff did not seem to grasp the magnitude of the projects that it undertook," wrote Torrance accountant Kenneth L. Creal, who was hired by the district in January to review the bond expenditures.

After nearly three hours of discussion, board members voted 3 to 1 late Tuesday to ask the district attorney and state attorney general to review whether the bond proceeds were spent appropriately. Trustee Simon Ayala dissented and board member Anthony Ramos was absent.

"I don't think the board made any judgments, but I think we have an obligation to taxpayers to forward this to the district attorney and he has an obligation to investigate," Oxnard attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz, who represents the district, said Wednesday.

The assessment is the latest controversy to settle over the rural school district, which has been racked for more than a year by turmoil surrounding the dismissal of former Supt. Yolanda Benitez. Benitez was fired last June amid allegations that she improperly sought to impose a pro-bilingual educational program in the largely Latino school district.

Ayala, a Benitez supporter, said he worried that the assessment was commissioned in an attempt to sully the former superintendent's name. "I feel strongly that this whole thing is biased," Ayala said. "This is just another tactic they are using in order to try to find something wrong with [Benitez's] administration."

Benitez, who led the district for eight years, has said repeatedly that her ouster was politically motivated. She filed a lawsuit in October accusing the district and three board members of wrongful termination, breach of contract, violation of her constitutional rights and intentionally damaging her reputation.

The financial assessment noted that Benitez was superintendent throughout the period the bond measure "was conceived, funded, and while the various projects were designed and constructed."

Reached Wednesday, Benitez said she had not had an opportunity to read the report but said she was confident the district accomplished most of what it set out to do with the bond proceeds. And like Ayala, Benitez said she believes the report was weighted with political bias.

"From my perspective, [the accountant] was brought in to find things wrong with my administration, not to find the truth," Benitez said.

Macri-Ortiz said the assessment was spurred by a resident's complaint to the district attorney's office and forwarded to the county's superintendent of schools. In fact, Macri-Ortiz said it was schools Supt. Charles Weis who recommended late last year that the Rio district review the bond expenditures to ensure they were spent as promised.

The report is the culmination of that recommendation. Among its findings was that the district paid more than $2 million to a firm for classroom modernization -- including suspended ceilings, lights and paint -- despite an original estimate of $400,000 for that work.

Promised modernization of two elementary schools -- El Rio and Rio Lindo- -- never occurred, according to the assessment. And about $2 million in bond money was used to help build a community gymnasium at Rio Del Valle school, although the project was not initially proposed as a bond-fund expenditure. The report also called into question the district's record-keeping practices, expenditure of nearly $2 million in architectural fees and the failure of district staff members to apply for millions of dollars in government funding that could have been put toward classroom modernization and new school construction.

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