Is Joel Benton still principal at L.J. Hauser Junior High in Riverside? It’s a question that would appear an easy one to answer, but it’s not.

Officially, Benton is on paid personal leave from school and Victoria DeVylder, principal at Hollywood School, is serving as interim principal at Hauser. That announcement came to students and parents via a Jan. 9 letter from District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson.

According to the letter, the leave is related to the death of Benton’s mother and the task of settling her estate. But the wording of the letter doesn’t necessarily tie the family matter to Benton’s leave of absence. While Lamberson said that Benton is technically still an employee of the district and “a member of the district’s administrative team,” it appears from the Jan. 9 letter that Benton is out at Hauser.

DeVylder has been named interim principal at Hauser “in order to make a leadership transition,” according to the letter sent to parents.

On the District 96 Web site, Benton’s name no longer appears in connection with Hauser and is not included in a listing of administrative staff of the district.

Benton did not respond to several phone calls to his home seeking comment.

Rumors as to the events surrounding Benton’s departure from the school and what may have prompted the apparent ouster from Hauser have begun circulating. According to various accounts, Benton was escorted from the building by Lamberson on Jan. 9, Hauser’s first day of class after the winter break, and that Lamberson subsequently had the locks changed at the building. Lamberson would neither confirm nor deny those rumors.

Others in the district have suggested that philosophical differences between Benton and Lamberson or school board members that may have been at the root of the problem.

School board President Cheryl Berdelle said, “I wish I could answer more questions, but I can’t talk about matters of personnel to anyone.”

Asked if philosophy was at the root of the issue concerning Benton, Lamberson responded that he and the board “want to be able to address philosophical issues.”

“The only thing I have heard from the board is support for the administrative team and the direction we’re going in terms of supporting the strong traditions we have and looking for areas to improve,” Lamberson added.

According to Lamberson, Benton is in the final year of a two-year contract, as are all but one of the district’s principals. Central School Principal Janice Limperis, who is new to the district this year, has a one-year contract in order to get her on the same schedule as the rest of the principals, Lamberson said.

While the Hauser job has not been posted, Lamberson said, the district will need to decide it’s direction soon.

“We really need to start looking ASAP,” Lamberson said. “The high-performing districts are already advertising. If we have to go down that road, I hope to know about that in the very near future.”

Lamberson said that DeVylder will continue to serve in an interim role at Hauser “until this leave is up.”

DeVylder referred all questions about Benton’s leave of absence to Lamberson.

“We’re dealing with all the things we have to deal with in ramping up for the next semester as well as next year,” Lamberson said.

Benton was hired as principal of Hauser Junior High in 1996, and has been an educator for over 20 years. A native of Oak Lawn, Benton taught English on both the high school and middle school levels. In 2005 he received the Educator of the Year award from the Riverside Township Jaycees and the Riverside Masonic Lodge.