Only four months after taking office, Rio School District trustee Henrietta Macias has found herself at the center of a political firestorm that has resulted in suspension of the superintendent, a district attorney's investigation and a recall campaign against her.
Macias, 55, was part of a three-person slate backed by Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn in November in a campaign that focused on problems in the 4,000-student district and the leadership of Supt. Yolanda Benitez.
Macias' victory shifted the balance of power on the board against Benitez. Trustees Ron Mosqueda, who was reelected last fall, and Ernest Almanza are among the new board majority who voted to suspend her.
Although sworn into office by Flynn, Macias has maintained that she is no puppet of the Oxnard-based supervisor. Flynn's 5th District includes El Rio.
As early as last month, Macias said publicly that there would be no administrative shakeup in the district. But two weeks later, she voted to place Benitez, 51, on paid leave pending an investigation of her administration and spending practices, and to notify the district's seven school principals that they could be sent back to the classroom or lose their jobs.
The vote forced into the limelight a fledgling public official in a small school district whose action may have otherwise gone unnoticed, had it not been for the ongoing and highly public feud between Flynn and Benitez, longtime political rivals. Benitez backed the supervisor's opponent in the 2000 election.
Macias, a one-time union organizer who is used to butting heads, said she came into the job willing to work with Benitez. But she said every time she requested information about expenses or financial records from the superintendent, she was stonewalled.
Benitez, who has served as superintendent for eight years, maintains she never refused to turn over the information, but told Macias it would take time to gather all the documents she requested. The superintendent said she believes Macias is simply acting in Flynn's interest.
"Flynn is behind this whole thing," said Benitez, who is consulting with an attorney to discuss her options. "No doubt about it."
Macias defended the board's decision to suspend Benitez and predicted that she would be vindicated once the district has completed its review.
She said the district's seven principals, all of whom were appointed by Benitez, also are being evaluated to determine whether they should be reassigned.
"I have a right to change my mind when I see our children in need and our money going to the wrong things," Macias said. "I know in my heart I am doing the right thing. Our kids are going to get a better education."
Feelings of Betrayal
Political opponents of Macias said they are offended by her recent actions and are suspicious of her motives. The district attorney is investigating allegations that the board violated the state's open-meetings law because it did not properly post the action against Benitez on its agenda.
"She's a hypocrite," said George Perez, a former school board member who lost his seat to Macias in November. "She says one thing and does another."
Current board member Anthony Ramos, who along with trustee Simon Ayala dissented on the recent administrative changes, said Macias' "flip-flopping" has caused a lot of turmoil. "People feel betrayed by her," he said.
But supporters say Macias' no-nonsense style is just what the district needs. Those who are critical of Benitez said the superintendent wielded a lot of power over the previous board.
Macias, unlike other board members, has shown a willingness to listen to teachers' complaints, said Rebecca Mendoza-Barbetti, president of the Rio Teachers Assn. "We were looking for independent thinkers, and it's apparent she is," the union leader said.
Macias "is a strong woman," added community activist Soledad Trevino, who helped campaign for Macias. "We wanted people who nobody could boss around."
Macias is no stranger to controversy, having spent much of her adult life organizing for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1036. She said she worked her way up from an 18-year-old grocery-store checker to an executive officer, and loved to "sell people on what I believed in."
In 1993, she was fired from her position as a union business agent for allegedly misusing union funds. She filed a grievance against President George Hartwell "and pursuant to a written settlement" resigned from her job and her elected position, according to court records. The union chapter paid her $25,000 to relinquish all claims against the union and president, records show.
The terms of the settlement would have allowed her to keep her job with the union, but she refused to work for Hartwell, Macias said.
Two years later, Macias ran against Hartwell for president of Local 1036. She mailed a campaign flier stating that the reason for her termination was "disloyalty to the president," according to court records.
Believing the mailer was misleading, Hartwell distributed his own flier stating that Macias was terminated for "misappropriation of union funds, insubordination and excessive absence, plus disloyalty."
Macias lost the election and filed suit against Hartwell, alleging his statements were false "and defamatory, exposing Macias to hatred, contempt, ridicule, and obloquy, because they accuse Macias of dishonesty and of committing the crime of theft," according to court records.
The court dismissed the complaint and "found that the union terminated appellant for the reasons stated in the flier." Macias was ordered to pay Hartwell's attorney fees, totaling $44,445.
Macias said the allegation that she misappropriated funds was a misunderstanding involving her car insurance. The union had agreed to make her insurance payment, but because the fee for covering her son's car was included on the bill, union officials mistakenly believed that the union was also being asked to pay for her son, she said.
No Rubber Stamp
The allegations of insubordination and disloyalty stem from her refusal to rubber-stamp checks for a variety of union expenses, Macias said. She insisted on scrutinizing and signing each check individually, against the president's wishes, she said.
The dispute strained Macias' relationship with her former boss for years. She unsuccessfully challenged him for his job twice more. She said the two have since mended their relationship.
In February 2002, Macias said, she was rehired by Hartwell as an organizer. She retired from the union last month but remains in contact with administrators.
"We always call her. She's very personable and friendly, which is what you need for organizing," said Martel Fraser, secretary-treasurer of Local 1036. "She's not afraid to walk up and talk to a stranger."
Macias, who is divorced and has two children, said she decided to run for school board after seeing Rio's poor performance on state achievement tests last year. She said she has five grandchildren enrolled in the district's schools.
"I think instead of complaining about things, the best thing you can do is be on the board," Macias said.
Any help she got from Flynn during the election was welcome but not solicited, Macias said. She said Flynn never asked her to fire Benitez.
"He never did," Macias said. "I would swear on a stack of Bibles."
Tensions between Benitez and Flynn began more than two years ago after Benitez decided to endorse Flynn's opponent, Francisco Dominguez, in the 2000 supervisorial election, according to Benitez. She said Flynn warned her afterward that he would work to oust her.
Flynn denies this. He said their problems began when Benitez blocked his efforts to provide after-school activities for children in a $3-million gymnasium in El Rio that he helped raise money to build.
That's why he campaigned for Macias and Mosqueda, Flynn said. But he never told them to suspend or fire Benitez, he said.
Dozens of parents protested the school board's action last week, waving signs during the panel's meeting that said, "Benitez suspension obvious in Flynn's dirty hand," and "Flynn out of El Rio -- fix the potholes, not the schools."
Denis O'Leary, a Rio teacher and spokesman for a local Latino-rights group that has supported Benitez, said community groups are still in the organizing stages of a move to recall Macias, Mosqueda and Almanza.
O'Leary said he thinks the board will spend the coming weeks on a "fishing expedition" to come up with a reason for suspending the superintendent.
"The district is hurting, and will continue to hurt," he said. "Short of replacing the board majority, I don't think we're going to heal anytime soon."
But Macias doesn't seem bothered by all the controversy or the threat of being recalled. "Let them do it," she said. "What, like it's going to ruin my reputation? I'm a union official. I'm used to this."