300 in Oxnard Weigh In on the Suspension of Rio District Chief

Times Staff Writer

More than 300 parents, teachers and community members packed an Oxnard school cafeteria Wednesday night to weigh in on the suspension of Rio School District Supt. Yolanda Benitez and the possible firing of the district's seven principals.

Before the Rio district board went into closed session to discuss the issues, dozens of Benitez supporters and detractors delivered emotional pleas to the five-member panel.

Ramon Flores, a parent of three children in the elementary district, said the principals he has worked with have been "nothing short of outstanding" and that any move to remove them makes no sense.

He also argued that test scores in the district have steadily risen under Benitez's leadership.

"Are we better off today than we were eight years ago?" Flores asked, referring to Benitez's start date. "My take on it is yes, we are."

But other parents said they supported the school board's efforts to make changes.

Alex Varagoza said he thinks Benitez puts too much emphasis on bilingual education. His fourth-grade son was placed in a bilingual class, he said, even though he speaks fluent English.

While he doesn't like what is happening to Benitez, "if that's what it takes to get some change, then so be it."

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

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

A third board member, Ernest Almanza, also voted in that closed session to suspend Benitez.

The board also announced that principals in the district's seven schools may be let go or sent back to the classroom.

Board members listened to more than two hours of comments from both sides. Loud cheers erupted after almost every speaker.

Mary Gutierrez, a teacher at Rio del Valle School, attacked Mosqueda for sending his own children to schools outside the Rio district.

"You may not be affecting your children with what you're doing, but you are definitely affecting mine," she said.

Michelle Townsley, a fourth-grade teacher at Rio del Norte School, said teachers and parents there have nothing but respect and admiration for Principal Orvel Jones, who has worked in the district for 35 years.

"We want our principal to stay," she said.

She and others showed up at the meeting in the cafeteria at Rio Plaza School wearing red, Benitez's favorite color.

Many of Benitez's supporters carried signs calling for a recall of Mosqueda, Macias and Almanza. But many parents endorsed the board's actions.

Susan Cazares, a parent and volunteer at Rio Real School, said Benitez has been unresponsive to her worries about school performance and the worries of many other parents.

"What I want is for us to come together for the children," she said. "I'm glad this board is here. It's a wake-up call for all of us."

Before the meeting, about two dozen parents, children and community members rallied outside the school for a news conference organized by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Carrying signs saying "Children's Education Disrupted by Flynn's Vendetta" and "We Want Our Superintendent Back," parents said they were there to support Benitez and their schools' principals.

"I can't see why they would want to get rid of our principal. She is an awesome woman," said Maria Vega, who has two children at Rio Lindo School. "This is no time to start playing politics with our children."

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.

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