Rio District Broke Law in Supt.'s Firing, Appeals Court Rules

Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court ruled that Rio School District officials violated the state's open meeting law when they fired former Supt. Yolanda Benitez but left open the issue of whether the district is obligated to reimburse her for back pay and benefits estimated at more than $400,000.

Benitez, who served as superintendent of the Oxnard-area district for eight years, was fired in 2003 over allegations that she aggressively pushed a bilingual agenda. She later filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit accusing the district and three board members of violating her constitutional rights and intentionally damaging her reputation.

After Benitez won a partial Ventura County Superior Court victory in 2004 over some provisions outlined in the lawsuit, the district filed an appeal.

In its ruling Wednesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal awarded Benitez reasonable attorney fees and costs, which could exceed $300,000.

The panel also struck down Benitez's restitution award without prejudice, allowing her to pursue full compensation in her continuing legal battle with the district.

"We think this puts the district in a very disadvantageous position," said Celia Ruiz, whose Emeryville law firm represents Benitez. "We're going to paint a very clear picture of recklessness on the part of the board as they rushed to get rid of her."

Benitez, who was placed on paid administrative leave in March 2003, maintains that she was denied her right to have the board discuss her proposed termination during a public meeting. Instead, board members voted 3 to 2 behind closed doors to fire her June 13, 2003. Because the board would only let her attend the meeting without her attorney, she declined.

Board members accused Benitez of pressuring or bribing parents to sign bilingual waivers, instructing faculty to prevent bilingual students from taking state proficiency tests to artificially raise scores, discriminating against Anglo faculty and hiding files during a state audit.

School Board President Simon Ayala, who voted against Benitez's firing, said the district should resolve the matter before the mounting legal costs force reductions in educational services.

"This doesn't look good for the district," he said. "You're looking at possibly cutting back programs, or cutting into the reserve. This whole ordeal has been an embarrassment to our school district.... I hope we can finally come to some sort of settlement so we can move forward."

The 4,000-student district, which is made up largely of students from working-class Latino families, recently began its search for a new superintendent, the third in three years.

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