Special Report: The Rio School District
Longstanding discord, turnover in leadership, scandals force students into the back seat
By David Michael Courtland 05/12/2011
Broadcaster David Cruz remembers his first encounter with the Rio School District’s board of trustees in 1996 at a “tightly controlled” meeting, he says, where questions were being raised about the district’s finances and expenditures.
He was a reporter for a Los Angeles NBC affiliate at the time.
“There was a struggle between Benitez, the board and the teachers,” recalls Cruz, referring to former superintendent Yolanda Benitez. “I remember going to one meeting that went on for two or three hours; it was packed.”
That meeting set the tone for all the others Cruz covered, following a pattern that has continued for 15 years, with trustees, parents, teachers and superintendents locked in a seemingly endless battle for control of the school district.
Cruz, who is now a local radio show host and producer, says those meetings left him with the feeling he had “walked into a dysfunctional home,” and made him reluctant to return to cover more meetings.
“I don’t think I ever came out to cover a positive story on El Rio, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t looking for it,” says Cruz, adding, “The fracture was very evident” on the board, with trustees casting a lot of 3-2 votes on decisions. He notes one other thing that has remained constant since that time.
“It seldom seems to come down to talking about the kids,” says Cruz. “The discussion always seems to be contract disputes, labor disputes, financial disputes — everything having to do with the aspect of dollars, dollars, dollars and money, money, money.”
That remains the central theme of Rio School Board meetings, as the current trustees wrestle with a budget crisis. Meanwhile, a board just as divided as the one 15 years ago must search for a new superintendent while dealing with the fallout from firing the last one.
That fallout includes complaints against the district filed by former superintendent Sherianne Cotterell as a likely prelude to a lawsuit, and efforts by two trustees (Tim Blaylock and Mike Barber) to have the other three investigated by law enforcement officials.
“I think it’s counterproductive. It’s our job to provide kids with an education,” says one of the trustees elected in November, Ramon Rodriguez, on May 4, adding that he has discussed Blaylock’s and Barber’s concerns with them.
“They’re wasting time.”
But the matter Blaylock and Barber want investigated — whether it was a conflict of interest for Rodriguez, Henrietta Macias and board president Eleanor Torres to accept campaign money from a corporation involved in a long-standing court battle with the school district — is typical of allegations made against Rio School District officials over the years since the administration of Yolanda Benitez.
Benitez, who was superintendent for eight years and had almost 30 years in education, was not without supporters among trustees, principals and teachers. But her staunch advocacy of a bilingual education program put her at odds with others.
“If the kids had Hispanic names, they were getting sent to bilingual ed,” says El Rio resident and longtime school board observer, Soledad Trevino. “We had one of the highest rates of non-teachers — they were not certified teachers; they couldn’t even speak English properly.”
Benitez fought publicly with former Oxnard mayor Manuel Lopez’s wife, and with former county supervisor John Flynn, whose own district included the Rio School District service area. After supporting Flynn in earlier campaigns for the Board of Supervisors, she campaigned for his opponent, Francisco Dominguez, in 2002.
Flynn in turn campaigned for school board candidates Macias and Ron Mosqueda, who both later voted with Ernest Almanza, first to suspend and then to fire Benitez.
“It was power — she was very well-connected; she knew how to play people. We had a hard time getting rid of her,” says Trevino.
Oxnard resident Bert Perello attended some of the raucous meetings Cruz described. “She had a lot of people come to her support because it looked like they were going after her for being Hispanic,” says Perello.
Perello recalled a telling moment when the newly elected board was picking a president to run its meetings. Benitez, temporarily chairing the meeting, quickly closed nominations and refused to allow any more after her supporter Simon Ayala was nominated.
“People were fearful of talking because everybody knows everybody in that community,” recalls Cruz.
When a divided board placed Benitez on administrative leave in March 2003 — Ayala and Anthony Ramos voted against the move — some teachers wore black armbands to show their solidarity with her, and principals who were rumored to be in danger of being sent back to the classroom showed up to support her at a public hearing.
But the board made a critical mistake in procedure that would later work in Benitez’s favor and come back to haunt the board: In June, when Mosqueda, Macias and Almanza voted in closed session to fire Benitez, they violated state law by not giving Benitez or the public proper notice.
California’s Brown Act requires 24 hours public notice of special meetings. The Ventura County district attorney’s office concluded that the board violated the Brown Act, giving Benitez a basis for filing a lawsuit.
That was when the board made another critical mistake in the eyes of many residents: In March 2006, trustees voted to settle the $1.4 million wrongful termination suit with Benitez, paying her $741,000 of back wages, attorney’s fees of $690,000, full medical coverage until she turns 65.
That wasn’t the only move that angered many El Rio parents, who felt Benitez simply didn’t deserve the money.
Others were also dismayed when the board decided in June 2005 not to extend the contract of Benitez’s successor, Patrick Faverty.
Promoted from principal to superintendent by another split vote of the board, Faverty alienated some trustees by allegedly making decisions with favorites, while leaving the others out of the loop — including budget items that should have been voted on by the full board.
“There were some things that happened under Faverty that made them question his contract,” says Perello. “He told them if they didn’t extend it, he was starting to look for another job the next day. They didn’t extend it.”
A recall campaign was launched in December 2005 with more than 2,900 signatures prompting an August 2006 special election less than three months before the district’s regular fall election. Voters were asked whether to keep board members Ayala, Eve Acosta and Ken Ortega or replace them with Robert Guillen, Blaylock and Brian Martin.
“We didn’t even get out of the starting gate,” Ayala would later tell the Los Angeles Times, noting that 943 of the 1,486 votes cast — less than 14 percent of the district’s registered voters — were absentee. Guillen, Blaylock and Martin became the new board majority.
But in an ironic twist of the electoral system, Ayala, whose term would have ended that November, remained a candidate on the fall ballot because it was too late to remove his name. Despite not actively campaigning, Ayala was re-elected by another low turnout of voters and found himself joining Mosqueda and the three new trustees.
Earlier that July, just before the special election, Ayala was among the board members who helped pick Sherianne Cotterell to be the district’s new superintendent. Cotterell, who had been an assistant superintendent in Sacramento’s Washington Unified School District, was no stranger to controversy. Her alleged role in forcing a popular principal’s transfer to another school within that district had angered parents, according to news reports.
But in contrast to Rio’s history of divided school boards, the five who worked with Cotterell for the next several years virtually never cast a dissenting vote.
“With Sherianne, it was a 5-0 board and that was a problem,” says Rio teacher Rebecca Barbetti, who is president of the Rio Teachers Association. “With 3-2 boards, it’s the usual ‘us against them,’ but 5-0 boards for a supe’s entire administration shows nobody’s thinking.”
Or perhaps simply not communicating, suggested Ramon Flores, who sits on Ventura County’s Board of Education.
“Myself as a board member, I have very good communication with (County Superintendent) Stan Mantooth, and with the rest of the board,” says Flores. “With the current (Rio) board, I just don’t see that; I don’t know why that is.”
That lack of communication increasingly became a problem as Cotterell and the board asked teachers for salary and benefit concessions in an effort to balance the district’s budget — but refused to answer RTA’s questions about district expenditures.
Among things the RTA wanted to know was why proposed budget cuts seemed disproportionately larger than ones made in other Ventura County districts. Teachers and parents also pointed out seemingly unnecessary or even extravagant expenses like hiring a public relations firm and postponing meetings to attend conferences in other states.
“The school board continues to ask RTA to come in and negotiate; we continue to tell them they need to give us the financial information we requested,” Barbetti says in March 2010 as the board announced a round of teacher layoffs.
“Until that happens, there will be no discussion,” Barbetti continued. “Every opportunity they have, they blame the association instead of discussing a plan. Either there’s some significant mismanagement going on, or somebody is lying.”
Meanwhile, Cotterell and trustee Brian Martin drew headlines for reasons that didn’t involve district finances.
Cotterell had been filmed by a security camera shoplifting shoes at T.J. Maxx in Oxnard in July 2009. Blaming stress and health issues for the incident, she further roused the ire of parents by apologizing in private to the board, but not publicly to students and teachers.
Then, in March 2010, Martin was charged with several counts of child molestation. A May 20 protest demanding his and Cotterell’s resignations drew more than 100 people.
Cotterell later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor petty theft and was sentenced to 36 months probation, with a one-day jail sentence suspended. On the same day, Martin was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
With Martin’s seat on the board now open and three other trustees up for re-election, former trustee Macias and others seized the opportunity. Eleven people ran for the four seats, with a slate made up of Macias, Rodriguez, Eleanor Torres and Mayra Sevilla getting the endorsements of both Rio and Oxnard Elementary School District teachers.
Most of the slate was elected to the board in November, with water agency president Mike Barber of Nyeland Acres beating Sevilla for Martin’s former seat. Macias narrowly edged out incumbent Robert Guillen, despite Guillen’s and Blaylock’s questions about an incident in Macias’ labor organizing past.
The new trustees were sworn in at an uncharacteristically festive school board meeting in Rio Vista Middle School’s cafeteria, closing a contentious campaign season and bracing to tackle the district’s unresolved problems. But it didn’t take long for trustees to find themselves feuding with each other and Cotterell.
On March 2, after four weeks of closed-door meetings to talk about Cotterell’s performance, the new majority — Torres, Macias and Rodriguez — made Cotterell the third Rio superintendent in a row to be forced out.
With only Blaylock dissenting — Barber had missed the meeting — the board voted to exercise a clause in Cotterell’s contract that let them fire her without cause.
Even so, Barber, who had asked for the meeting to be held on a different day so he could attend, had a statement objecting to the decision read into the record. At the board’s next regular meeting, he demanded Torres’ resignation.
Seven of the eight schools in the district are in program improvement, meaning the schools are performing below average in the state and had been doing so under Cotterrell’s watch. Board president Torres says that was not acceptable. But Torres has hope for the future.
“My plan is when this interim comes in — we are so very careful on the choice, that we get someone so experienced and so knowledgeable, we can start of moving forward with this district,” she says.
Blaylock notes, however, that though those schools are in program improvement, test scores of those schools have steadily improved over the years with Cotterell at the helm.
Meanwhile Blaylock and Barber have sent a letter to Ventura County’s district attorney, sheriff and grand jury and Oxnard’s police chief asking them to investigate the other three for alleged for possible conflict of interest, which led to the decision to fire Cotterell. They allege that Macias, Rodriguez and Torres were, in essence, paid to fire Cotterell by a construction company with a long-standing lawsuit against the district.
Among donors to the Committee to Reform Rio, a political action committee set up to fund the accused’s school board campaigns last year is FTR International, which contributed $20,000. Cotterell asked the law firm Griffith and Thornburgh, LLP, of Santa Barbara, in November, after the election, whether this violated California campaign law and the firm concluded it did not. The lawsuit is costing the district approximately $400,000 in legal fees for the last three to four years, according to a 2010-11 second interim financial report presented by Finance Director Mark Krueger in March.
But Cotterell e-mailed trustees on March 31 that the conclusion drawn by the law firm regarding the campaign contributions was flawed because new information has come to light since then. She did not say what that information was, but may have been referring to former school board candidate Raymond Amaro’s claim that Reform Rio dropped its support of him because he would not agree to fire Cotterell.
Rodriguez says he, Macias and Torres didn’t set out to fire Cotterell and tried working with her, but found themselves feeling as if they were being talked down to, with the normal relationship between superintendent and school board trustees reversed.
“Normally, trustees make the decisions and superintendents carry them out, but with Sherianne, it was her way and that was it,” says Rodriguez, adding that the decision to suspend Cotterell was not made lightly. “It was a weird, weird feeling.”
Despite not having a permanent district manager, Rodriguez and Macias are both confident the board can resolve its ongoing budget problems under the guidance of Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wagner.
“The people that we have in place are very efficient and knowledgeable,” says Macias. “They’re doing a great job.”
Barbetti is likewise more optimistic than before that teachers can reach an agreement with the board on a new contract.
“I think teachers acknowledge there have to be concessions,” says Barbetti, who is part of the team that resumed negotiations with the district’s representatives this week. “What we have to determine is what form they will take.”
“This district will come together, we will unite and we will do what is right for its children and its future. Don’t give up on us,” Torres says. “We are a good district, and people are good in this district.”