Rio School Board Orders Inquiry

Times Staff Writer

A bitterly divided Rio school board will investigate the district's administrative expenses to determine if embattled Supt. Yolanda Benitez should keep her job.

Although no formal charges or allegations have been brought against Benitez, the board voted 3 to 2 Wednesday night to hire a Ventura accounting firm to conduct an investigation into her spending practices.

Board members Henrietta Macias, Ernest Almanza and Ron Mosqueda said they had heard enough complaints about Benitez from district employees to justify an investigation.

The move is the latest effort to remove the superintendent from her eight-year post in what Benitez, 51, says is the outgrowth of a political feud between her and Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn.

Flynn, whose Oxnard-based district includes El Rio, campaigned for Macias and Mosqueda in the November election and allegedly said he wanted Benitez ousted. Benitez supported Flynn's opponent in the 2000 election.

The conflict has split the unincorporated farm town of 9,100 mostly Latino residents, leaving many wondering what will happen to the community's only government institution.

During the raucous school board meeting Wednesday attended by 300 Benitez supporters and detractors, Macias said she wanted to know the true condition of the district's finances because she "wasn't going to jail for things other people have done."

She said she had repeatedly asked Benitez for financial information, and the superintendent refused to provide it. Benitez has denied this, saying she told Macias that it would take time to compile the information.

Board member Anthony Ramos, who along with board member Simon Ayala voted against the audit, called the move a witch hunt, adding that the district came out clean in its annual audit in January.

"It's them trying to find something on her," Ramos said. "It's just a setup. It's not rocket science to see through all this. The problem is we're almost doing a full employment act for these attorneys. There were two there for six hours last night. We should be spending our time and money where we're supposed to, on the students."

After a two-hour private meeting Wednesday night, the board announced it had hired Pyne, Waltrip, Lippert & Decker to conduct the audit of expenses and "other matters as directed by the board."

The firm will be paid a rate not to exceed $195 an hour. Board members did not say when the investigation would start. They also agreed in a 3-2 vote to ratify their March 5 decision to place Benitez on paid leave.

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 the agenda.

The board's newly hired attorney, Martha Torgow, said she is confident the board did not violate the state's open-meeting law, but board members wanted to reconfirm their previous vote. At the March 5 closed meeting, Mosqueda, Macias and Almanza voted to suspend Benitez, ordering her to clean out her desk and changing the locks on her office door.

By the same 3-2 vote Wednesday, the board ratified another March 5 decision to notify the district's seven principals that they may be let go or sent back to the classroom.

Torgow said the decision to send layoff warnings to principals will give the board majority flexibility if it decides to reorganize the district's management.

There is also the possibility, she said, that the board will decide to get by with fewer principals for financial reasons.

Parent Sergio Lopez, who has a son at Rio del Norte Elementary School, said he is upset about the way the school board has handled the issue of the principals.

"We have a lot of questions that haven't been answered," he said. "I feel a lot of our voices were heard, but they need to follow up and react to the public outcry."

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the board also decided to give all teachers on emergency or provisional credentials notices that their contracts will not be renewed, citing concerns about the state budget crisis.

That should affect about 30 teachers, Torgow said.

The board has until May 15 under state law to decide whether to hire them again next year.

The district estimates it will have to cut about $750,000 from its $29-million general fund budget next year, said acting Supt. Mary Anne McCabe.

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