Rio School Board Faces Public After Shakeup

Times Staff Writer

A week after they placed a superintendent on leave and threatened to lay off seven principals, school board members in the Rio School District will face the public tonight at a special meeting.

Both supporters and detractors of Supt. Yolanda Benitez -- who is on paid leave indefinitely -- are expected at the 6 p.m. hearing, along with the principals who are in danger of losing their jobs.

Benitez, 51, contends she is being forced out of her eight-year position by a new board majority acting in the interest of Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, a longtime political rival.

The three board members who voted to place her on leave have not explained their reasons. Board attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz said only that Benitez was "on vacation" pending a district investigation. Assistant Supt. Mary Anne McCabe has taken her place in the interim.

Flynn has said he was not involved in any decision about Benitez, although he campaigned last November for Henrietta Macias and Ron Mosqueda, two of the board members who voted last week to suspend her.

Meanwhile, the Ventura County district attorney's office is investigating the 4,000-student district to determine whether school board members violated the state's open-meeting law by not giving proper notice of their actions on last week's agenda, officials said.

At that meeting, Mosqueda, Macias and board member Ernest Almanza voted in closed session to suspend Benitez, ordering her to clean out her desk and requesting that the locks on her office door be changed immediately.

They also announced that principals in the district's seven schools may be let go or sent back to the classroom, citing concerns about state budget shortfalls.

School districts across Ventura County have sent out pink slips to teachers and principals in danger of losing their jobs because of potential budget cuts. They are required to give such notice by Saturday.

But supporters of Benitez questioned the timing of the Rio board's announcement.

"Budget reasons? No. I think it's more to do with a show of power," said Anthony Ramos, one of the two Rio school board members who did not support putting Benitez on leave.

Last week, many teachers wore black armbands in solidarity with Benitez and the principals. Several parents also protested outside Rio del Norte Elementary School, saying they supported Benitez and the school's principal, Orvel Jones.

Jones said he is concerned about his job but is focused on making sure the political controversy stays out of the classroom.

"Children will hear things," Jones said. "They have concerns. I have little guys walking up to me and saying, 'Mr. Jones, are you going to be fired?'

"I have to reassure them. But I'm trying to keep my focus on my school and keep it running."

But Naomi Knox, an El Rio resident, said Rio schools need help, and that starts with a change in leadership. Knox said she moved her child to the nearby Mesa Union School District because of problems she had with the Rio district.

"My son had straight A's in El Rio -- he never had to study," she said. "When he got to Mesa Union, he was a C-minus student."

The board will meet at 6 p.m. today at Rio Plaza Elementary School, 600 Simon Way, Oxnard.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World