When former Poway Unified superintendent John Collins pleaded not guilty to four felony charges at his arraignment in Superior Court downtown last week, it was the latest indignity of a two-year unraveling of his 40-year career in public education.

The district attorney’s office accuses Collins, 63, of misappropriating public money before he was fired for cause in July 2016 by an emboldened school board armed with damning forensic auditor findings. Collins faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of all the charges against him.

The school district fired him last year, accusing him of engaging in illegal self-dealing, unprofessional conduct, dishonesty and misappropriation and gifting of public funds. The district is also suing him in civil court to try to recover more than $320,000.

Recently, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing stripped Collins of his teaching and administrator credential.

If convicted of even one felony, Collins will lose at least a portion of his annual $296,500 pension.

As the bad times get worse for Collins, his supporters and detractors disagree about the cause of his downfall.

One camp believes a zealous slate of new school board members removed Collins without adequate cause, publicly and recklessly shaming him along the way. In the other camp, Collins is to blame, as well as an environment that lacked adequate accountability and oversight.

Though Collins’ fall from grace may seem abrupt, it was more of a slow burn.

From Good to Bad

Things weren’t always so bad for Collins, who led the 36,000-student North County public school district from July 2010 to July 2016.

With high-achieving students and a compensation package larger than most leaders in the public sector, he had a firm spot among the upper echelon of public school leaders in the state.

Collins rose through the district’s ranks, beginning as an assistant principal in 1989, then principal in 1993 and on to multiple district administrator jobs in 1996. He became deputy superintendent in 2001. The school board chose Collins to take the helm in 2010.

Early on, Collins enjoyed the full support of the school board and the teacher’s union. News agencies and even the San Diego County Grand Jury lauded the district for its test scores and other student measures. Students often went on to prestigious universities. Parents were largely engaged and affluent.

The school board, parents and counterparts praised Collins for his steady hand and for thinking ahead with technology. His relationship with the teacher’s union also became a model of cooperation.

“He was a visionary. … He saw the value in technology and how it could enhance education. He always put students first,” said Linda Vanderveen, a Poway school board member for 14 years before losing a 2012 re-election bid. “John was an excellent educator and he appreciated the needs of the students, as well as the staff.”

The good times didn’t last long, though. Soon after taking the helm, Collins and other district leaders would be fielding questions about a big financing decision made in 2011 that launched the district into the national spotlight and attracted criticism for years.

Voice of San Diego helped uncover a costly 2011 capital appreciation bond deal in 2012, revealing Collins and the school board had saddled future generations with nearly $1 billion in debt in exchange for just $105 million in cash. That bill will come due from 2033 to 2051.

Even state leaders took notice. Then-state Treasurer Bill Lockyer told Voice of San Diego in 2012, “I would fire staff that made a deal like this. And if I were a voter, I’d pick a different school board. But that’s just how I react to how egregious I think this deal is.”

California lawmakers in 2013 changed state law to make sure such deals would never happen again. That same year, the San Diego County Grand Jury scrutinized Poway’s deal, and cited a letter from the California attorney general that said part of the deal was, in fact, illegal.

Collins suddenly faced intense questions about his business acumen, and crowds of residents called for his termination. Others called for board members to resign.

Still, Collins downplayed the whole ordeal.

To survive, Collins counted on his loyal supporters, including school board members who defended the deal alongside him. They even gave him a raise amid the backlash. Leaders made a goodwill gesture to critics by hiring an outside investigator to look into the bond deal.

That investigation, handled by former FBI agent Bob Price with ESI International at the behest of the district’s longtime lawyer Dan Shinoff, exonerated district leaders of wrongdoing, but the report lacked depth.

For instance, to assess the reasonability of the $1.3 million paid for adviser fees on the deal, the report concluded district leaders know best, and, “The District was completely satisfied with amount of compensation paid to financial consultants and the work performed.”

Armed with an investigator’s endorsement of their actions, Collins and the school board soldiered on, but the bond deal would haunt them.

From Bad to Worse

Anger over the bond deal fomented among locals, and a Facebook page called Thanks A Billion was created in 2012.

Collins and the school board belatedly reported receiving meals worth $2,200 from the bond deal’s underwriter on state-mandated forms that exist to monitor conflicts of interest. Over the years, Collins had received $670 in food from the Stone & Youngberg firm, which was chosen without a bid and made nearly $814,000 on the deal.

The costly bond deal became a political lightning rod during the 2012 and 2014 school board campaigns. First came Kimberley Beatty in 2012, who garnered more votes than Vanderveen, then the board president.

But Beatty was alone in a sea of loyal incumbents. New candidates came two years later. Charles Sellers, who won a seat on the board, called for drastic leadership changes. Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane also won seats. O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane aligned themselves with the old guard, namely Collins, the teacher’s union and Andy Patapow, the lone long-timer left on the board.

The years that followed would see a number of 3-2 votes on controversial items, with Beatty and Sellers often bucking staff’s recommendation while seeking to change the status quo.

Some onlookers called the board dysfunctional. Others targeted Collins.

None were more vocal than the Garnier family, who were locked in costly litigation with the district over Chris Garnier’s termination from an assistant coaching job and a restraining order Collins obtained against him without board permission – an omission later cited in Collins’ termination. Garnier’s father in law, Keith Wilson, also regularly criticized Collins with harsh barbs at board meetings and in emails sent to district leaders and members of the media.

The family launched a recall effort against Patapow in 2015 for his support of Collins and the capital appreciation bond deal, but they dropped the effort in 2016.

Other than the public and school board drama, though, things were mostly smooth at the district office. When other districts bickered with their teacher unions, Poway stood as an example of how teacher union relations could thrive.

It turned out that cozy relationship had financial incentives for Collins, whose contract granted him the same pay increases as managers, and managers traditionally received what teachers received.

The teacher’s union was clearly favored when it came to divvying up district resources, and other unions wanted to see more money flow their way. A rift developed and led to a Public Employment Relations Board complaint in 2015 alleging the district and teacher’s union had failed to follow state laws requiring public notice of their negotiations for years. The district called the lapse an unintentional error.

Collins also took a hit later that year when Voice of San Diego revealed he made undisclosed edits to a consultant’s scathing report about the state of the district’s technology department.

All was not well in Poway Unified.

The Final Days

By the end of 2015, Collins wanted out.

Early departure talks began, but with 18 months left on his contract, Collins wanted the school board to pay him to leave. Over Collins’ objections, the school board hired a new attorney to represent them who had no history with the district. The school board had to study his compensation more closely.

Collins had been a regular on lists of the highest-paid public school employees in the county and state. At $448,860 in total compensation in 2015, Collins ranked second in California.

Even with departure negotiations under way, Collins sought to give more money to managers, including himself. Collins successfully got a 4 percent salary increase approved in January 2016, over the objections of Beatty and Sellers.

Emails later released by the district show behind the scenes, Collins also inquired with staff in December 2015 about increasing longevity pay for managers, a perk that gave additional raises to those with at least 10, 15, 20 and 25 years of district employment.

Collins knew his own contract meant he would also get any of those increases automatically. The emails have been cited by the district as evidence of Collins’s alleged self-dealing and conflict of interest.

The way the district calculated the longevity benefit improperly padded Collins’ pay for years, adding $132,000 in unauthorized payments, according to dismissal documents and civil lawsuit. Rather than just receiving a 2.5 percent raise “at the conclusion of” those landmark years, like his contract said, earlier percentages were added too. A 2.5 percent salary boost after 25 years instead became a 10 percent boost. In one year alone for Collins, that’s at least a $20,000 difference.

In April 2016, the school board placed Collins on paid leave so the accounting firm Vicente Lloyd Stutzman could complete a full compensation review. The results would provide the ammunition to terminate Collins for cause.

The Aftermath

The school board terminated Collins on July 10, 2016, citing various unauthorized vacation cash-outs, longevity overpayments, “me-too” contract language, restraining orders sought on the district dime without board approval, credit card misuse and other issues.

One of the costliest areas of concern dealt with vacation days. Collins’ contract granted 30 days of vacation per year, with a 60-day limit for accrual.

Though Collins’ contract allowed him to cash out vacation upon departure from the job, auditors said he cashed out days intermittently while still on the job, including days he’d already taken off without logging them properly with the district.

Collins cashed out 116 vacation days in recent years, to the tune of at least $148,400, the audit said. That included one occasion in 2014, when Collins cashed out 64 days for $87,192, resulting in a negative vacation balance.

The civil lawsuit from the district came soon after Collins’ termination, seeking to recover more than $320,000. Collins’ wife Lisa Collins, a teacher in the district, sued Poway Unified last July, claiming leaders didn’t do enough to stop harassment she endured from the Garnier and Wilson family. She also claims the district invaded her privacy by releasing texts when her husband was fired.

Then came the review by the state credential commission, which revoked Collins’ credentials for “misconduct.”

Then the district attorney filed criminal charges, which allege Collins misappropriated public money by abusing vacation and other leave time, as well as the district credit card. The charges do not address the ”me-too” pay raises or longevity pay calculations.

One of Collins’ attorneys, Victor Pippins, said outside the courtroom Thursday, “Mr. Collins is obviously disappointed, but he is resolute. He stands firm in his innocence, and now we start the process of proving that to everyone as well.”

Collins Responds

Other than entering a not guilty plea to the criminal charges and broadly denying the district’s claims in a civil court filing, Collins has not publicly responded to the claims.

He did, however, provide a point-by-point rebuttal to the district’s claims in a letter sent to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing last November in an effort to keep his credentials, calling them “false allegations.”

“There is no legitimate evidence that proves that I was, in fact, over-paid,” Collins wrote in the Nov. 23, 2016, letter, obtained by Voice of San Diego. “Nor is there proof that I was criminally negligent. Indeed, there is no proof of any actual loss to the District.”

“He got paid for vacation he had already used,” Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr said outside the courtroom where Collins was arraigned Thursday.

“We disagree,” Collins’ attorney Paul Pfingst told Voice of San Diego. “Anything he cashed out, he earned.”

Collins also said in the letter to the commission a July 2015 vacation calendar cited in his termination was only a draft and showed more days off than he took. Another absence was work-related, so he could attend a gathering of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium in Arizona.

Pfingst said prosecutors believe Collins should not have cashed out vacation time accrued before becoming superintendent with a new contract.

“That contract period ended. … It’s as if you have a new employee,” Pfingst said. “To turn that into a felony event just strikes us as a dramatic overkill.”

The timeline shown in the criminal charges only goes back to 2012.

Search warrant affidavits obtained by NBC San Diego also show prosecutors believe Collins took 116 hours of unreported sick leave “at a cost of $18,134” from 2012 to 2016.

Pfingst said that as a salaried employee, Collins wasn’t required to take sick leave for doctor visits.

Much of Collins’ reply to the commission argues he is being unfairly targeted since many payments to him at issue were not unique, like internet reimbursements and longevity pay.

“This is exactly how it had been handled for me and every other management and classified employee for more than thirty (30) years,” he wrote to the commission about the longevity pay perk. Collins also took a dig at the district’s failure to go after others for their overpayments.

Collins wrote the “me-too” language in his contract granting him the same raises as other employees is included in sample superintendent contracts posted online by the Association of California School Administrators, though a representative of the organization told Voice of San Diego last year such clauses aren’t recommended for anyone conducting labor negotiations.

Collins said he was conducting sanctioned negotiations when he tried to get managers a raise before leaving, and, “The fact that I was negotiating on behalf of the District was not secret, and was regularly and publicly agendized for District consideration.”

Purchases on the district credit card of a personal nature, like airline tickets for his family, were reimbursed before it appeared on the credit card statement, and Collins sometimes bought meals for other employees or board members, he added.

Text messages between Collins and his assistant about removing documents from his office after he was placed on paid leave were used as evidence he interfered in the district’s investigation.

“I never made any effort to interfere with an ‘investigation,’” Collins wrote.

Collins said seeking temporary restraining orders without school board permission was “emergency litigation. I was authorized by District policy to make emergency decisions. The protection of District employees from harm should be considered commendable not a basis of alleged misconduct,” he wrote. Further, he said he was following the advice of the district’s attorney, so, “the District’s focus on me appears to be misplaced. I am not a lawyer.”

Collins summarized his position, writing Nov. 23, “at all times have conducted myself in a professional, honest, ethical, and caring manner. … I loved what I did and used to say that I could not believe how blessed I have been to do something that brought me so much happiness and joy. I would absolutely be devastated if I were to lose the privilege to remain in this profession.”

As for all the claims Collins has faced in the last year, Pfingst said, “I think this had more to do with a change in the school board than what Dr. Collins did as superintendent.”

Collins remains out of custody. The next court hearings in his criminal case are scheduled for Sept. 29 and Oct. 17.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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