A sharply divided board ordered Rio School District Supt. Yolanda Benitez placed on administrative leave this week, upsetting her supporters and prompting allegations that she is the victim of a political coup engineered by Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn.
Benitez, who has served as superintendent for eight years, said she was informed Wednesday night that she was being placed on paid leave indefinitely following a closed-door meeting of the district board.
The superintendent said she was told to clear out her office and was escorted out of the building by a sheriff's deputy.
Benitez, 51, said she has hired a lawyer and plans to consult with the district attorney about the board's action, which she believes was illegal because it was not properly posted on the agenda. Benitez said she was not given a reason for her suspension, but believes the board was acting in Flynn's interest.
Benitez said Flynn, whom she has feuded with publicly for years, has aggressively sought her ouster and had even warned her on one occasion that she would lose her job. She noted that Flynn campaigned in November for trustee Henrietta Macias, who joined board members Ron Mosqueda and Ernest Almanza in voting to suspend her.
"I'm stunned and saddened that in my 29 years in education, working with children, that there would be a day when a politician like John Flynn and his vindictiveness would jeopardize my job," said Benitez, who vowed to fight to regain her position.
Flynn denied any involvement in Benitez's suspension or with interfering in the affairs of the 4,000-student district, though he said he knows Benitez has been "insubordinate" in her dealings with certain board members. He did not elaborate.
He acknowledged having problems with Benitez, but said they stem from her unwillingness to cooperate with him in running after-school and summer programs out of a $3-million community gymnasium that Flynn helped raise money to build. Flynn's Oxnard-based 5th District includes El Rio.
"What Yolanda needs to do is look at herself in the mirror and say, 'Look what I did to myself,' " said Flynn, 69. "She should never have taken such a strong position against the gym."
Meanwhile, Mosqueda, the school board's president, refused to comment Thursday on Benitez's suspension, referring all questions to the district's newly hired attorney, Barbara Macri-Ortiz.
Macri-Ortiz said the board's reasons for suspending Benitez were a personnel issue and therefore confidential.
The attorney, however, said a review of the superintendent's job performance was properly posted on the board's agenda and that the three trustees -- now the target of a fledgling recall effort -- did nothing wrong.
"In terms of her situation, nothing changes," Macri-Ortiz said. "She's on vacation, basically."
Trustee Simon Ayala said he and colleague Anthony Ramos, who opposed Benitez's suspension, were "blindsided" by the board's action. He said he and Ramos left the room when the votes were taken, not wanting to "be responsible for what they were doing."
Ayala said he and Ramos were also surprised when Mosqueda announced that principals in the district's seven schools may be forced to return to the classroom as teachers or lose their jobs as soon as next week. The board will take up the issue at a special meeting on Wednesday.
"We do not have any idea whatsoever about what's going on," Ayala said. "It's terrible. It's a circus."
Tensions between Benitez and Flynn, both known as strong-willed leaders, began more than two years ago after Benitez endorsed Flynn's opponent, Francisco Dominguez, in the 2000 supervisorial election, according to Benitez. A week after she announced her endorsement, Benitez said Flynn called and threatened her.
"He said to me, 'I will destroy you. I will take your position. I know how to fire you. I have to change the board. I will do that and you will not be in Rio anymore,' " Benitez said.
Flynn called the assertion "absurd." "I'm not going to respond to that. It's so silly," he said. "I wouldn't even attribute such a comment to a preschooler."
But Denis O'Leary, a teacher in the district and spokesman for a local Latino advocacy group, said Flynn clearly has been involved in the rift between Benitez and the school board majority.
"He's trying to oversee the district," O'Leary said. "What he needs to do is take care of the potholes in El Rio."
Under Benitez's leadership, Rio schools have improved an average of 87 points on the state's Academic Performance Index in the past three years. All but one of the schools in the largely Latino working-class district, however, still score in the bottom half of campuses statewide.
Still, many remain convinced the board's action was politically motivated, rather than focused on Benitez's job performance or record, and will ultimately damage the district and the community.
"John Flynn is behind this whole thing," said George Perez, a lifelong resident of El Rio who served on the board for eight years before losing to Macias last fall. "It's really sad that he would get this far down. It's tearing the community apart."
Perez predicted the episode will galvanize a large segment of the Latino community against Flynn in the 2004 election. So far, Oxnard City Councilman John Zaragoza is the only candidate who has entered the race.
But Flynn, who plans to announce this month whether he will seek reelection, said he isn't worried about the effect the El Rio flap would have on his candidacy.
"Almost every block I walk into, I know four families," said Flynn, who has held office for 26 years. "They look at me as brown on the inside and white on the outside. The reverse of the Oreo."
But Benitez said Flynn, who also engaged in a highly publicized spat last year with Irma Lopez, the wife of Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, has alienated many in the community and doubts he can win reelection.
"Flynn has made a lot of mistakes lately," she said. "And I think it will haunt him."
Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.