Pleasanton Weekly

News - June 6, 2014

Far from over

Events prior to Vranesh's removal, his fate remain unclear

by Gina Channell-Allen

Jon Vranesh left his office at Walnut Grove Elementary School so quietly on Oct. 25, 2013, that not even the people closest to him on staff knew he had been asked to leave. It wasn't until parents started asking about his whereabouts that people came to learn Vranesh had been put on paid administrative leave from his position at Walnut Grove, where he'd been principal since August 2011.

On Nov. 5, in response to the inquiries, Pleasanton Unified School District superintendent Parvin Ahmadi sent an email to parents, but it never mentioned Vranesh by name. "Mr. Rich Puppione is serving as an interim administrator of Walnut Grove Elementary School. Mr. Puppione served the District for over thirty years as a teacher, principal and district administrator," the email read. "We are confident our programs at Walnut Grove are in very good hands. Mr. Muniz will continue as the vice principal at Walnut Grove."

Actions in the early morning hours of Dec. 18 only added to the questions and frustration over lack of information. After a school board meeting that lasted until 3 a.m., Ahmadi said in a statement, "In a 4-1 vote, the board found merit to complaints against an administrator. The board instructed the superintendent to issue a written decision to the parties in this matter, and directed that a future meeting include an item on appointing a new principal of Walnut Grove Elementary School."

"There were teachers, parents and members of the community that came forward in strong support of Jon Vranesh," said Sharrell Michelotti, one of Vranesh's supporters and a family friend. "Their strong support for him was not taken into consideration by the board or the administration while they were making a decision on his fate."

In addition to not naming the "administrator," Ahmadi and the members of the school board, including then-president Jeff Bowser, refused to comment on the complaints and who made them, citing privacy concerns.

Ahmadi addressed the speculation around Vranesh's departure in an email to parents after the Dec. 18 decision, stating the district is limited in what information it could release.

"I respect your right to know whether the recent appointment of an interim administrator at Walnut Grove involves questions of student safety," Ahmadi's email said. "While I am not legally permitted to discuss any personnel issues, I can assure you that these changes are not related to the safety of any of our students."

Documents provided to the Pleasanton Weekly by the district in response to a Public Records Act request shed light on the allegation, but also revealed that Vranesh had his own set of grievances against the school district.

One document was a Nov. 7, 2013, letter from the district's attorney — Kim Kingsley Bogard of the Folsom law firm Kingsley Bogard — to Vranesh's attorney, Paul Kondrick, in which Bogard states, "As previously stated, the allegations are that (Vranesh) created a hostile work environment at Walnut Grove through, among other things, the use of vulgar/derogatory terms to describe female employees of the district."

The letter also claims these allegations were made by "several women" and that Vranesh also "made statements to subordinate employees which were interpreted as threatening and intimidating in nature."

Through his attorney, Vranesh has denied the allegations, both in person at closed sessions of the school board and in written documents, including a statement he submitted to the district that he signed under "penalty of perjury" on Dec. 17 denying using the derogatory terms or threatening and "violent" language.

The search for a new principal at Walnut Grove left Vranesh, still a district employee, on paid administrative leave. That changed Jan. 28 when the school board approved moving Vranesh into an "itinerant principal" position.

The change in title and responsibilities might have gone unnoticed if not noticed by Michelotti. The new status was in a summary of personnel changes included as part of the board's consent agenda, in which a list of items is voted on as a whole and without discussion. Vranesh's name was listed in the document as a personnel change from K-5 principal to "itinerant principal."

Assistant superintendent Bill Faraghan sent a letter to Vranesh on Feb. 20 that said, "It is the District's practice to notify employees prior to Board action to allow them the opportunity to resign from administration in lieu of release. Consistent with that practice, the District is willing to accept a letter of resignation any time prior to commencement of the Board meeting."

In a Feb. 21 letter to Bogard, Kondrick responded to Faraghan's letter by stating, "Under the not so veiled threat of his 'release' or indeed termination as an administrator within the school district, Dr. Faraghan magnanimously presents Jon Vranesh with the 'opportunity to resign' rather than to be fired from the position.

"Jon Vranesh will not be resigning as an administrator within the district," Kondrick's letter continued. "Moreover, there is no objective reason for him to be released, removed or terminated as a PUSD administrator. Moreover, he will not allow himself to be beaten into submission by continued retaliatory, arbitrary actions by the District, including Superintendent Ahmadi and Dr. Faraghan. In other words, Mr. Vranesh has no intention whatsoever to go 'quietly into the night.'"

Many sides

The events and circumstances prior to Vranesh's removal as principal are not completely clear.

After Ahmadi's first email to parents and the resulting story in the Pleasanton Weekly, Vranesh left a voicemail at the Pleasanton Weekly stating, "I put the Pleasanton Unified School District on notice months ago regarding situations that negatively affect staff safety, working conditions and a conducive environment for instruction and student learning," he said. "Rather than taking effective action to eliminate those conditions, they put me on administrative leave."

Ahmadi responded to the Weekly, "It is true that Mr. Vranesh has been placed on administrative leave. The reasons for this leave, however, are not those listed by Mr. Vranesh in his statement. We have explained the reasons for this personnel action to both Mr. Vranesh and his attorney. The rules covering employee privacy do not allow us to comment on them publicly at this time.

"Our district can, however, comment on the typical administrative leave process. In situations where employees are placed on leave, a thorough investigation is conducted. Information shared during the investigation may be limited. This is done both to maintain the integrity of the investigative process and to respect the privacy rights of all parties involved. The district's goal in this and all such cases is to achieve a fair and appropriate outcome."

The investigation was done by Shon Davidsen, an investigator paid by the district. Among the documents obtained in a second Public Records Act request by the Pleasanton Weekly — which were placed on the district's website in response to the request — were a number of witness statements taken by Davidsen during the investigation.

These statements offered a mix of criticism and praise. Vranesh is described as "a very honorable man" by one, and a "pathological liar" who hates strong women by another interviewee.

Some staff members mentioned in witness statements were taken aback to learn they were part of the statements at all, since they said they had never been interviewed by Davidsen. Linda Pipe, Amador Valley High School registrar, and Mary Snell, Walnut Grove health clerk, addressed the school board March 11 to make public that they had never been interviewed.

"Imagine my shock, confusion and anxiety to discover myself named as a participant in acts of retaliation by two teachers (redacted) and (redacted), as a result of Jon's removal," Snell wrote in a letter addressed to board members.

"I am very angry that words, actions and intentions supposedly attributed to me were included in the printed 'investigation' of Mr. Vranesh without ever contacting me to ascertain the veracity of these words, actions or intentions," Pipe wrote in her letter.

Vranesh started his tenure as principal at a time of change at Walnut Grove. Class sizes were about to rise to 30 and a popular Walnut Grove effort, the Discovery Program, was on the chopping block.

The Discovery Program, in which teachers stayed with students for two years — in kindergarten and first grade, for example — was ended in 2012. In March 2013, Vranesh was called to a meeting where he was told some teachers of non-Discovery classes at Walnut Grove complained they hadn't been consulted about plans to end the program.

According to a timeline presented at the Dec. 17 school board meeting by Vranesh and Kondrick, "Discovery teachers themselves approached Jon Vranesh and voted to close the program," noting those teachers said they couldn't do the same work with bigger classes.

The timeline notes other occurrences and conflicts after the cancellation of the Discovery Program, including an anonymous note left in Vranesh's office in the fall 2012 hinting Vranesh and another person at the school may have been involved in an intimate relationship (an allegation Vranesh denies).

Also that autumn, a conflict reportedly arose between Vranesh and a custodian whose performance was being questioned. Vranesh also said that teachers told him they were becoming overwhelmed with additional duties, including the impending implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a new district-mandated grading system and additional training requirements.

According to Vranesh's timeline, the conflict between Vranesh and some teachers seemed to escalate in May 2013. At that time, at least one teacher tried to "undermine his authority" and "personally attack and defame" him.

In mid-June 2013, amid ongoing complaints that teachers' rooms weren't being cleaned, Vranesh alleged an unnamed district official ordered him to "surreptitiously stake out" the custodian responsible for the duties in question to see if that person was leaving early, according to the timeline.

Capping off the school year was a request for Vranesh to prepare a "summary of understanding" with the custodian. The summary stated the worker was "expected to come every assigned work day ... and work the entire shift according to the specified cleaning schedule."

The timeline shows that, in Vranesh's opinion, communication between Vranesh and some of the teachers remained tense when school resumed in the fall of 2013. In addition to continuing dismay about the elimination of the Discovery Program, a conflict arose on Aug. 27 with a staff member concerning the placement of a student, and there was angst among some teachers regarding the restructuring of a special education program.

Complaints of falsifying time cards by the custodian whose performance was being monitored the previous school year were verified through Vranesh's "district ordered 'stakeouts,'" he said, and were reported to the district in fall 2013. However, according to Vranesh, the district declined to fire the custodian, which reportedly caused more resentment from the teaching staff who felt their concerns were not being addressed.

Fall 2013

Between Oct. 1 and 16, Vranesh said he met with other site administrators either one-on-one or in small groups. On Oct. 8, according to Vranesh's timeline, the district's elementary school principals met informally off-site to "discuss the lack of support from the district, lack of trust, lack of forum within the district to present ideas, and fear of retaliation from (redacted)."

On Oct. 16, Vranesh had what he described in the timeline as a "courageous conversation" with a few Walnut Grove visitors who appear to be district employees about the "health of our district," specifically the site administrators' inability to "effectively discipline and even remove unsatisfactory teachers and classified staff."

Vranesh said he told the visitors that "teachers and classified unions get 'worked up' on any adverse personnel affecting their members, and the 'downtown' abandons administrators." When he was asked by one of the visitors to explain that statement, Vranesh said, "Well, my school is filthy; students sat in filth during the entire last school year." He continued that there were refusals to follow direction and the official cleaning schedule and that someone or something was causing "fear," but "still (redacted) is not fired."

This, according to Vranesh, was "just the most recent example of unions running the district, and the administrators system wide in the district had no confidence that any teacher or classified employee reprimand or discipline would be supported..." He told the visitors that the Walnut Grove teachers were "extremely angry at him for being ineffective and not even able to get basic services at WGE."

On Oct. 17, the timeline notes, Vranesh met with someone presumed to be a teacher who described an interaction earlier in the month. The teacher reported that he or she was in the classroom after school and another district employee said a third employee had been insulted when the teacher called the third employee "my trash fairy." The employee also brought up other actions the teacher had made that were perceived as disrespectful.

According to the teacher, the employee who confronted him or her got very emotional and "told me that there was stuff going on at our school and (redacted) was documenting everything and (redacted) had already called into a labor person to notify them about what I did and said. I suggested that perhaps I should notify my union rep," the teacher reportedly told Vranesh. The interaction left the teacher feeling "uncomfortable," "targeted" and intimidated.

On Oct. 18, the first allegations of inappropriate language emerged. According to Vranesh's timeline, he was told in a phone conversation that someone had "claimed that Jon Vranesh used 'B' and 'C' words with someone in the workplace," to which Vranesh responded, "WHAT!?! That is crazy! That is outrageous!"

At a meeting on Oct. 21, Vranesh was informed about accusations he used expletives about teachers, and Vranesh said he responded that the accusations were false and "outrageous."

According to Vranesh, on Oct. 24 a site meeting was held with Walnut Grove teachers who were asked to "raise their hand as a group if they ever disagreed with Jon Vranesh, or if Jon Vranesh said anything that they did not like, or if Jon Vranesh have ever said anything bad about anyone." The group or individual that called the meeting was redacted from the document.

On Oct. 30, Vranesh filed a complaint of his own, alleging, among other things, that the district failed to act on safety issues including the intimidation of Walnut Grove teachers, retaliation for reporting safety concerns, failure to conduct an investigation, defamation of character, harassment, intimidation and discrimination. Vranesh filed an official complaint alleging "discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on gender" with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Nov. 5.

Throughout November and December, supporters attended school board meetings, asking that Vranesh be returned to the school and questioning his being placed on paid leave.

Richard Puppione, who took the helm at Walnut Grove when Vranesh was placed on leave, stepped down Nov. 21 due to health issues. Steve Maher came out of retirement as the school's interim principal until a new principal was named May 13.

A 17-page letter dated April 16 informed the school board members and the superintendent of Vranesh's "claims for money damages and injunctive and other relief against your local public or other entity, for amounts totaling significantly in excess of $10,000."

Claims are generally required before a lawsuit for money damages can be brought against a public entity.

The letter states that "PUSD and its agents and employees defamed Jon Vranesh" by "making or publishing false statement(s)," and by "making statements to third persons that disparaged Jon Vranesh's skills and services, especially to the public." It also claims Vranesh's right to privacy was violated.

In addition to naming the district, Ahmadi and assistant superintendent Luz Cazares, the claim also names the president of the Association of Pleasanton Teachers, Peggy Carpenter, as allegedly conspiring to "intentionally interfere" with the employment contract and the economic relationship between Vranesh and the district.

Meanwhile, Vranesh is still acting as "itinerant principal" and doing data entry work at the district office at his administrator's salary of $125,000 a year, according to his attorney, and his fate is unclear. His contract as an administrator will not be renewed for the 2014-15 school year, but Ahmadi would not comment about whether Vranesh will be an employee of the district next school year and, if he is, what his role will be.

"He was one of the best administrators in the district," said Michelotti who, like many others, still follows the school board for information about this situation. "The parents and community members were not happy with the outcome of this decision."

-- Editor's note: This story is the result of seven months of gathering information primarily through the California Public Request Act. One of three requests produced 32 documents with more than 700 pages. Links to the documents are available in the online version of the story at www.PleasantonWeekly.com.

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