Big ‘ifs’ in Biggs

Its schools are poised for positive change—if two large issues are resolved

These core members of the parent empowerment group are taking teachers to task in Biggs. Shown here, left to right, in front of the Biggs Community Hall: Cheryl Gorden, Pam Sheppard, Shelley Slusser, Mike Felkins, Marlee Mattos and Sandra Jackson.

These core members of the parent empowerment group are taking teachers to task in Biggs. Shown here, left to right, in front of the Biggs Community Hall: Cheryl Gorden, Pam Sheppard, Shelley Slusser, Mike Felkins, Marlee Mattos and Sandra Jackson.


It’s not hard to find the schools in Biggs, Calif., pop. 1,707. There are only two of them, the K-8 Biggs Elementary School and Biggs High School, and they’re next door to each other on B Street, the main drag, just three blocks from downtown. The Biggs Unified School District headquarters is located there, as well.

That makes it easy for Doug Kaelin to walk between his two offices. A burly man who looks like the football coach he once was, he’s the district superintendent as well as the high-school principal, jobs he’s held for 15 months. After years of turmoil, with superintendents and principals coming and then quickly going, he’s determined to turn around his underperforming district.

“I’m in it for the long haul,” he said during a recent phone interview.

That’s good, because he’s facing some major challenges. Contract negotiations with the teachers’ union have stalled, the teachers are engaged in a work slowdown, and a group of ticked-off parents has emerged to pressure the teachers to stop using their children’s educations as bargaining chips.

Not only that, there’s a $6 million bond measure on the June 5 ballot. If it passes by the required 55 percent vote, it will generate $3.6 million in state matching funds, for a total of almost $10 million. That money will be used to modernize both schools, which are greatly in need of upgrades. If it doesn’t pass, the modernization plans—on which the state spent $600,000 in “critical hardship” funding—will end up gathering dust on a shelf and the matching funds will go to some other district.

Is Kaelin worried that the very public fight between the parent group and the teachers will turn voters off the bond measure? “My hope,” he replied, “is that people are able to separate out their feelings and see the need for the improved school facilities.”

On Monday (May 7), the Biggs/ Richvale Parent Empowerment Group held an informational meeting in the Biggs Community Hall, which is located next door to the Biggs schools compound.

About 60 people listened as Pam Sheppard, Marlee Mattos and Cheryl Gorden, members of the group and parents of children in Biggs schools, gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining their grievances with the Biggs Unified Teachers Association.

Using charts, they showed that API scores had risen only 24 points since 2000, while other schools had improved much more dramatically, by 100 points or more. The high school has the lowest scores in the county, and Biggs Elementary ranks 37th out of 41 schools in the county.

“We cannot allow 10 more years of no growth in API scores,” Sheppard insisted.

On top of that, BUTA teachers were intentionally losing the district tens of thousands of dollars in Medi-Cal Administrative Activities (MAA) funding by purposely not participating in the program, the women charged.

MAA is a federally funded program that reimburses schools for assistance they provide to Medi-Cal-eligible students. In 2008-09 the district received $104,000 in unrestricted MAA funds. Since then, though, the teachers have cut back their participation in the voluntary program, in what they admit is a response to the stalled negotiations. In 2010-11 the district received only $27,000.

“We have to stand up and say, ‘No way!’” Sheppard exclaimed. “This directly relates to the quality of education of our kids.”

“The teachers are using tactics that are hurting our children,” Gorden charged. “They don’t seem to have anything on their minds except their COLA raises.”

One chart the parent group did not show depicts the salaries of Biggs teachers in relation to others in the county. Like the API scores, they are at the bottom, number 20 out of 20, some $5,000 below the next-lowest district, said Lynn DeArmond, BUTA’s chief negotiator.

The teachers haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment for more than a decade, he said. The district faced a budget deficit in 2005-06 and went into receivership with the Butte County Office of Education, but now it has recovered and has a healthy reserve, he said. The district is offering a 1.5 percent COLA with some reduction of health benefits; the union wants 2 percent and no reduction.

That difference would cost only $70,000 a year, DeArmond said, but the district has refused to go there.

As for the parent empowerment group and its list of demands, “that’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard of in public education.”

In an email sent to members of the parents’ group, Christianne Langford, a teacher in the district, lamented that the parents were attacking the teachers. “I am confused and hurt that the teachers have become the brunt of parents’ frustrations with our schools and district.”

Rather than take out their frustrations on the teachers, the parents should hold the administration and school board responsible, she said.

“We are not the enemy!” she writes. “Please stop attacking us. If you want real change in our schools, we need to work together. If you have a specific problem with a teacher, talk to that teacher. If you want to change a specific program or policy, go to the administration and the board.”

Doug Kaelin was present at the parents’ meeting Monday evening. When the PowerPoint presentation ended, he addressed the group. His message: We’re making progress.

“I understand your pain,” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the last 10 years. … Lots of things were not done before.”

He’s initiated a number of programs that should improve test scores, he said, but it’s going to take time.

Echoing Christianne Langford, he said, “We have to work together. We’ll get nowhere fighting.” He urged the parents to attend school board meetings and hold him and the board responsible.

Later, in the phone interview, he pointed out that, although teacher salaries are low, health benefits are good and the retirement plan is the best in the region. And the district “is probably the only one in Northern California offering a raise this year.” The offer is all the district can afford right now, he said.

“My No. 1 responsibility is to make sure the district is financially stable. I don’t want us to be under county oversight again in a year or two. I’d rather keep everyone employed.”

One can envision a bright future for the Biggs school district—if it reaches agreement with the teachers, and if voters approve the bond measure. But those are big “ifs.”