Big scandal in Biggs

Editor’s note: Since publication of this article, former Biggs High School Principal Ralph Vandro has submitted documentation to the CN&R showing that, following an investigation, the Gridley-Biggs Police Department exonerated him of all charges of wrong-doing. In addition, following a week-long public hearing before an administrative law judge, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing dismissed all accusations against him.

Topless teens, would-be whistleblowers and egomaniacal administrators. Who could ask for anything more in a grand jury report? But officials at the 775-student Biggs Unified School District aren’t laughing.

The report, released July 8, outlines in cringe-worthy, scurrilous detail a variety of incidents said to occur on the Biggs High School campus.

“The perception worries me a bit,” admits Lee Funk, superintendent of the K-12 district. But he said he’s confident that once the district’s response—currently being reviewed by its attorney—is laid side-to-side with the grand jury’s report, it will become clear which document is the accurate one.

“The grand jury’s report was not only irresponsible but malicious, and every single one of their findings was incorrect,” Funk said. “It was basically a witch hunt. They weren’t looking for truth. They were looking to substantiate their own bias.”

A high school principal was accused of showing off topless pictures of girls who posed for camera phones in a locker room, as well as an unrelated sexually explicit photo. Staff members testified that he was also trying to get rid of the highest-paid teachers and disciplining students inappropriately and levied a litany of other charges adding up to a “hellish” campus dominated by fear.

The grand jury didn’t weigh in on all the accusations but determined that morale is suffering due to the weird goings-on and “what appears to be mismanagement by the principal, superintendent and a tolerant or indifferent school board.”

“The pride once known in the Biggs schools is not as apparent today,” the report determined, questioning everything from test-score reporting procedures to administrative turnover. While the jury at one point characterized the tenor as that of a “messy labor dispute,” it ultimately determined that “much of the turmoil in the high school is a result of the principal’s use of intimidation and fear to achieve his desired result.” It went on to say that the principal’s mismanagement “leaves the district vulnerable to legal action.”

There were so many factual errors in the report, Funk said, that it’s taken him 15 typed pages and 20 exhibits to rebut them. To start with, he said, the district didn’t neglect to respond to the previous year’s grand jury report. Funk also said the principal, Ralph Vandro, never showed the topless pictures to staff in a recreational way.

Funk said he believes he’s figured out who talked to the grand jury: teachers who have been part of a vocal minority “negative faculty culture at that school.”

“There were some people who were able to influence the grand jury,” said Funk, who called the body’s investigation “superfluous,” “ill-conceived” and “political.” The jury declined to talk with a number of students and teachers suggested by the district who would have backed up Biggs Unified’s take on the matters.

In its findings, the grand jury apparently anticipated such a charge and wrote, “While there may have been attempts to manipulate the grand jury, we are confident that our investigation fleshed out those instances.”

Funk said there are a few areas the grand jury addressed in which Biggs Unified could stand to improve. “The issue of the principal [turnover] is a serious issue,” he said. Biggs High has gone through 15 principals in 22 years, but Funk pointed out that the current principal is beginning his fifth year and his predecessor lasted three years.

The district is also under the watchful eye of the Butte County Office of Education after violating state rules and allowing its expenditures to drop so low that they erased the mandated 3-percent reserve. The district’s $6 million budget was $240,000 in arrears last year, something that Funk said he is working hard to address.

Vickie Speegle, president of the school board, stated in a press release, “Once the true information is circulated, I believe the district will be fully vindicated and the distortions will be seen for what they really are.”