Original URL: http://www.staronline.com/vcs/county_news/article/0,1375,VCS_226_2038646,00.html

Rio School District fires superintendent: Benitez accused of 15 contract violations
Ventura County Star
June 14, 2003

By Marjorie Hernandez, mhernandez@insidevc.com

The Rio School District board fired Superintendent Yolanda Benitez on Friday morning, after placing her on paid administrative leave
more than two months ago, saying she committed 15 contract violations.

After listening to public comments for and against Benitez, the board asked the public to step outside while it went into closed session to discuss Benitez's future. Benitez, 51, stayed briefly, then walked out with her Ventura attorney, Edward Lacey, when the board refused to allow him to be with her as she responded to the charges.

"I'm not totally surprised, because it seems the board majority never wanted to deal with my employment issues in a proper legal manner," Benitez said as she walked outside to await the decision.

Among other things, the board accused Benitez of requiring teachers to pressure parents to sign bilingual waiver forms, not informing parents of their rights, and discriminating against non-Hispanic job applicants. Coincidentally, the Ventura County Grand Jury issued a report on Monday saying the Rio School District had failed to notify parents of their rights and actively pushed for bilingual education.

The board reconvened the special meeting an hour or so later and voted 3-2 to end Benitez's eight-year tenure with the district. She
still had three years on her contract.

Flanked by her husband and Lacey, Benitez sat placidly in a royal-blue suit as board President Ron Mosqueda read the decision to terminate her contract.

"With the charges, the Grand Jury report and the parents' complaints, we had to look at the best interest of the students," Mosqueda said after the meeting. "That's the bottom line. We have made a good decision."

Benitez was supposed to respond to the 15 alleged contract violations at Friday's meeting. The charges were read publicly on May 7 but not at Friday's meeting.

Lacey handed the board a written response to the charges, which he had planned to present during the hearing. He had asked the
board to reschedule the meeting so Benitez's other attorneys could be present.

Martha Torgow, one of the board's attorneys, said Benitez did not have the right to have legal counsel present because it was not a
due-process hearing and there was nothing in her contract that would allow her to have representation during the closed session.

"That's the craziest interpretation of the Brown Act that I've ever heard of," Lacey said. "She has the right to be there and the right to be represented by counsel. They have two lawyers there ... and they want me to leave her in there in a den of wolves, all alone? Even criminals have that right."

Lacey said his client will file a claim with the Rio School District. The district can then accept or reject the claim. If it is rejected, Benitez will file a lawsuit for breach of contract, Lacey said.

A number of people at the meeting saw the decision as a positive move to regain order in the district.

"I think it's a step to heal our community," parent Soledad Trevino said. "It hurts to see a community that's small be divided with such bitterness. I think since she's left we've already seen positive changes and teachers are coming out and talking about how to correct the problems that we've had in the past. We're going to fix this mess and go forward."

Some board members feel Benitez's firing will cost the district more setbacks.

"I don't feel that she should have been terminated," board member Simon Ayala said. "Now we're going to incur more legal cost and we're going to have to take away those resources from the kids."

To offset possible legal costs, Ayala said, the district might have to lay off clerical staff. Within the first month after hiring legal representation in the Benitez matter, the district paid $12,000 in lawyer's fees, he said.

Before the board went into closed session, a number of people expressed their thoughts on the matter.

Donald Austin, an attorney with the Ventura Unified School District, told the board during a public comment period that those who voted to terminate Benitez might end up being personally liable for damages. Mosqueda, Henrietta Macias and Ernest Almanza voted to fire Benitez.

Anthony Zarate, student body president at Rio del Valle School, a middle school, described to the board how the political turmoil has
affected the youngest members of the community.

"For months now I have seen our district and community fall apart," Zarate said. He formally presented the board with 220 signatures from students in support of Benitez and various district principals whose jobs are threatened. "I have seen a community divided. I have also seen how ugly politics can get."

The next regular school board meeting will be at 7 p.m. June 25 in the district office, 3300 Cortez St.