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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.

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Former Serra High principal Vincent Mays had some explaining to do.

In June, Mays was called into an interview with Carmina Duran, director of the office within San Diego Unified that investigates complaints against district staff.

NBC San Diego obtained the investigative report Duran produced. Here’s how the whole thing unfolded, according to those documents.

Days before the interview with Duran, Mays hand-delivered what he said were his diploma and university transcripts. The diploma appeared to be doctored, Duran noted in the report. The graphics looked like they’d been cut-and-pasted.

Furthermore, Duran couldn’t find evidence to indicate that Stamford Hill, the institution from which Mays said he earned his Ph.D., was a legitimate university. One outside expert called Stamford Hill a diploma mill – the equivalent of a mail-order degree.

In 2013, a Texas man who claimed to be an audiologist said he earned his degree from the same university. But after investigators discovered he lacked any education beyond high school, and was in fact not qualified to produce audiology reports, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to a year jail.

According to San Diego Unified’s report, Mays couldn’t produce a single piece of evidence during his interview to show his Ph.D. was legit.

He said he completed his degree coursework via mail so he didn’t have records of his work. Every quarter, a London-based university would send him assignments, which he’d complete and mail back to a P.O. Box. He couldn’t confirm payments he made to the university because he paid them with money orders, he said.

Mays said he couldn’t remember anybody’s name whom he worked with at the school. He didn’t have a copy of his dissertation because he completed a research paper instead. But he had no records of that paper, either.

During the interview, as Duran pressed Mays about the details of his degree, he started sweating profusely and asked for a drink of water, according to the report. When Duran said she had no water, Mays was indignant.

“This is ridiculous, I can’t believe you don’t have any water. I am going to step outside, you can go on with the interview with him,” Mays said, referring to a supporter who accompanied him to the interview.

Mays said the whole ordeal was driven by teachers who didn’t like the reforms he instituted at Serra High.

That’s at least partially true. Three teachers were behind the detective work that called Mays’ degree into question. One of those teachers said his issues with the principal began when Mays showed he was unwilling to collaborate with teachers before he made decisions.

Still, the degree wasn’t the only issue Mays had to explain last school year. In October, staff members complained after Mays reportedly made sexual comments to teachers, according to ABC 10 News:

“Teachers who spoke to Team 10 said Mays used expletives and sometimes made sexually charged comments – like telling a woman who has a Puerto Rican husband that she was ‘Puerto Rican by injection.’

On another occasion, witnesses said Mays referenced the ‘black bull’ while making a sexual gesture.”

Mays said those complaints, as well as the ones about his degree, were racially motivated.

Mays said he and the local NAACP were contemplating suing “everyone” for defamation of character.

It didn’t sway Duran.  She concluded, “The investigation did not find conclusive and verifiable evidence that Stamford Hill University in London has existed as an accredited and academically recognized legitimate institution.”

But instead of dismissing Mays, the district moved him over to the Central Office, where he’ll work on “special assignment” – a lateral move that allows him to keep his $143,000 yearly salary.

And that may be the biggest mystery in the whole situation.

Question: How is it possible for Serra High’s principal to have a questionable degree but still keep a $143,000-a-year job? – Liz Harley, VOSD reader (I paraphrased the question)

Placing principals on special assignment has become a recurring feature of Superintendent Cindy Marten’s administration.

Special assignments are often loosely defined positions within the district’s Central Office where principals can land after they leave their schools.

It’s a position Mays said he accepted after Marten made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

A district spokesperson told NBC San Diego that next year Mays will focus on raising student academic performance for black and Latino students.

He’ll join John Ross, who recently left his job as principal of Lincoln High for a special assignment working with students who have been expelled or are facing disciplinary issues.

Last year, VOSD noted that Marten has placed 11 principals on special assignment since she was appointed superintendent in 2013.

A San Diego Unified spokesperson told VOSD that district staff members were too busy to provide updated numbers. But we can add Ross’ and Mays’ names to a list of at least 13 former principals who are now working on special assignment.

Like Mays, a number of principals moved to special assignment after controversy arose at their schools.

In 2013, in her first month as superintendent, Marten moved former La Jolla High Principal Dana Shelburne to special assignment after an audit found that more than $200,000 in donations weren’t backed up by any receipts. (Shelburne and a school board member at the time said the audit had nothing to do with the move.)

Later, Bruce Ferguson left Green Elementary School amid accusations that he failed to report cases of child sexual abuse. He took a job in the district’s Central Office.

Special assignment seems like an effective way for Marten to move problem principals out of schools without admitting mistakes.

But not every principal moved to special assignment faced questions about their on-the-job performance. In 2013 Marten moved Tavga Bustani, then a well-regarded principal at Edison Elementary, up to the office to help train other principals and administrators.

Ross didn’t face questions about his performance at Lincoln before he was moved to the Central Office. In fact, the district said graduation rates at Lincoln rose to an all-time high under his leadership.

Mitzi Lizarraga, former principal of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, moved to special assignment in 2014 after Marten said she struggled on the job. But Lizarraga’s past performance evaluations were solid and indicated no problems.

Lizarraga later wondered why she’d been moved to a district leadership position if she was an ineffective leader, as Marten indicated. She said when she arrived at the Central Office for her new job she was surprised to learn she didn’t even have desk. She worked on various projects for a few months then took a position at a prestigious performing arts school in Los Angeles.

Donis Coronel, president of the principals union, told me last year that special assignments can be a result of procedures outlined by principals’ contracts.

The superintendent has until March 15 to inform principals they’ll move to a new position the following year. If the move is a lateral one that allows principals to keep the same salary, the superintendent doesn’t have to give a detailed reason for the move.

In order for principals to be demoted or fired, the “charges” against him or her must be specifically detailed in writing. Per the terms of their contracts, principals and their union reps must have a chance to respond to those charges.

If principals choose to fight the decision, the entire process can take up to a year and cost each side upwards of $100,000, Coronel said.

So sometimes the quickest way to get a principal out of a school is simply to create a position for him or her.

Of course, that’s not cheap, either. While Mays gets to keep his $143,000 yearly salary, San Diego Unified will have to hire and pay a new principal to do the same work he used to do.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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