Principal Ernesto Zamudio was transferred to Olympian High School in 2015 after a wave of employee complaints. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

One teacher said longtime Chula Vista principal Ernesto Zamudio stole her personnel records in front of witnesses – the records are still missing. Another said he ransacked her classroom. Other employees of Zamudio complained he called them names, slandered, maligned and retaliated against them.

A lawyer paid by the district to investigate a slew of employee complaints against Zamudio in 2014 and 2015 determined there was “ample evidence” Zamudio’s conduct toward employees was “abusive,” but not illegal, records obtained by Voice of San Diego through the state’s public records laws show.

“The Legislature has made it illegal for a student to ‘bully’ a student,” attorney Jack Sleeth wrote in a report of his findings for the district. “But the Legislature has not yet made it illegal for an employee to bully or intimidate another employee.”

During the investigation, the Sweetwater school board transferred Zamudio midyear from Hilltop High School to Olympian High School, where he worked as principal for two-and-a-half years, earning an annual salary of more than $150,000, according to records obtained by Transparent California.

Last June, Zamudio was abruptly transferred again, this time to a special assignment job in the district’s transportation department. It is not clear what his duties were there or what spurred the move.

Now Zamudio, 63, is on paid leave, and has been since Jan. 3.

He reached a settlement with the district in September and agreed to resign June 30 after spending six months on paid leave. In exchange, Zamudio agreed to drop a discrimination complaint he filed against the Sweetwater district with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, records show.

Zamudio declined multiple requests for an interview in recent months. In emails in December, he denied a Hilltop High teacher’s report he ransacked her classroom.

He told VOSD he is “under a gag order not to speak to anyone getting paid principal pay till the end of June.”

VOSD could not find a gag order, but the district settlement agreement does include a non-disparagement clause.

“Zamudio agrees to do nothing to disparage District and/or any current or former Board of Trustees, employees, or agents of District in any communications whatsoever after the execution of this Agreement,” it says.

A Sweetwater district spokesman declined to answer several questions about the Zamudio investigation and findings, saying it would be inappropriate because it is a personnel issue.

Zamudio’s trajectory in the district despite evidence of an abusive management style raises questions about the district’s decision-making. It also highlights some of the difficulty school districts face when trying to discipline or dismiss employees.

The district “is committed to the training and development of all its school leaders,” spokesman Manuel Rubio wrote in an email. “We believe in a safe and inclusive culture for all. In the last few years our entire leadership team receives training and professional development on multiple topics including equity, school safety and a yearly management academy.”

Zamudio was first hired by Sweetwater schools as a teacher in 1986, and became a principal in 2004, district officials said.

Although principals are largely at-will employees, they do have job protections in state law.

School districts can fire principals or teachers for unprofessional conduct, immoral conduct, dishonesty, unsatisfactory performance, a felony conviction, persistent violation of school laws or district rules or for a number of other reasons outlined in state law. Even then, though, the employee may demand a hearing before being dismissed. The process can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years.

“If they want to eliminate the administrator, we support people getting their due process rights,” said John Almond, a member advocate with the Association of California School Administrators. “There’s a process for removing principals. You just have to do it right.”

A Flood of Complaints and a New Job

During his 32-year tenure with Sweetwater public schools, Zamudio attracted several employee complaints, according to employee testimonies shared publicly at a December 2014 Sweetwater school board meeting.

His time as principal of Hilltop High – from fall 2007 to January 2015 – appears to have been the most volatile.

The school board decision to keep Zamudio on the payroll and transfer him to another principal job on the other side of town just as complaints reached a fever pitch troubled Hilltop employees. They flooded the board meeting to voice their concerns and learned about Zamudio’s transfer to Olympian High that same night.

“I don’t know why this man has been allowed to act with impunity,” Hilltop teacher Melanie Morton told the board, explaining he hurled insults at employees.

The teachers’ union president at the time, Roberto Rodriguez, told the school board 30 people were interviewed by human resources about Zamudio.

“There is an issue when at a site, when so many people have so many complaints,” Rodriguez said. “The situation is so bad at Hilltop High that you are seeing what you saw today.”

Debbie Gerlack, then-vice president of the counselors’ union, asked the school board to remove Zamudio from Hilltop High.

“Most of the staff is intimidated by Ernie and afraid to speak out publicly,” Gerlack said. “This case should have been settled already and I have concerns. Ernie’s lack of knowledge regarding the master schedule, his vindictiveness, retaliation, bullying of staff and unprofessionalism is unacceptable.”

Hilltop science teacher Gina Woodard told the school board Zamudio’s vindictive and retaliatory behavior impacted her health and family. She filed a complaint and was dissatisfied with the outcome. She said there was concrete evidence and witnesses who saw him steal her personnel records – records that are still gone to this day. The investigation didn’t address that.

“There were glaring inaccuracies,” Woodard told Voice of San Diego. “He was never held accountable.”

“It wasn’t that they just didn’t do their due diligence. They didn’t investigate the primary complaints that I had,” she said.

Hilltop teacher Kay Henderson also spoke to the school board in late 2014 to vent her concerns.

“From the onset, I have been harassed and bullied by principal Zamudio … retaliated against relentlessly,” said Henderson, who had also filed a complaint.

She told Voice of San Diego Zamudio ransacked her classroom at one point, taking and hiding some items, and damaging others. Emails provided by Zamudio from October 2013 show he gave Henderson a deadline to remove items from a storage closet and warned the rest would be thrown in the dumpster. Henderson said that warning came later.

When the investigation wrapped in 2015, Henderson complained to the school board, saying witness statements were restricted and some relevant witnesses weren’t interviewed at all.

District staff and Sleeth “did very shoddy work in their investigations to the point of being a liability to the district. Their investigations made a mockery of truth seeking,” Henderson wrote in an April 2015 email.

When Zamudio was at Hilltop High, Spanish teacher Ana Rosa Munoz transferred to another school – Olympian High – to get away from him.

When Zamudio was transferred to the same school, others took notice.

“You cannot know what you have done. You have sent the predator to his victim,” teachers union vice president Colleen Cooke-Salas told the board at the time. “You heard that people left Hilltop High School, fled Hilltop High School and now you are sending him after them.”

‘Abusive Conduct,’ But Not Illegal

In the fall of 2014, interim Sweetwater superintendent Tim Glover was in charge. Glover, now superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District, did not respond to interview requests.

Cooke-Salas, the vice president of the teachers union, filed a complaint against Zamudio in September 2014 “on behalf of the staff at Hilltop High School.”

In it, she referenced a school board policy that “affirms that every student and staff member has the right to a safe and secure school environment, free of humiliation, intimidation, fear, harassment, or any form of bullying behavior.”

“An extremely low morale exists at Hilltop High School due to the humiliating and intimidating manner in which Mr. Zamudio addresses the staff,” Cooke-Salas wrote. “He will yell at staff members in front of others and even over the walkie-talkie … He will forbid people to speak to each other … He labels people as ‘trouble makers’ or ‘toxic’ and identifies them this way to others.”

“I never used the word ‘toxic’ in describing teachers,” Zamudio told Voice of San Diego in a December email.

Cooke-Salas’ complaint said Zamudio’s “prolific retaliation” created a “climate of fear on campus,” furthered by a use of undesirable assignments, transfers, negative attention and verbal threats.

“This is not the first complaint. It is an atrocity that there have been numerous previous complaints made against this principal, but there has been a refusal to take action on the part of the district. Relief is requested in the form of removing Mr. Zamudio from being the principal of Hilltop High School or the principal of any school in this district. No school anywhere needs to have such a fate befall them,” she wrote.

Sleeth, partner with local law firm Artiano Shinoff, ultimately concluded Zamudio’s behavior toward school employees did not break the law partly because it was not based on age, race, gender or disability, as some employees alleged.

“Conduct in the employment context described as harassment, discrimination, intimidation or bullying, which is not based upon a protected classification, is not illegal under California law,” Sleeth wrote in February 2015. “There is also no evidence of illegal retaliation. … But there is ample evidence of ‘abusive conduct.’”

Quoting a state law, Sleeth wrote abusive conduct “may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”

Zamudio told Sleeth the complaints originated with bad teachers he had reprimanded, according to Sleeth’s report.

“Mr. Zamudio indicated that there are about six ‘toxic’ people who he wrote up or criticized for poor performance in the classroom who are the center of the Complaints about him. He said that each of them is not a good teacher and all of his focus is upon improving the classroom performance of the teachers at Hilltop High School,” Sleeth wrote.

Ultimately, Sleeth recommended “training to correct an imperfect management technique.”

When a new district superintendent, Phil Stover, came on board, he told the board district staff heard only good things about Zamudio from Olympian High School staff. He recommended Zamudio become Olympian’s permanent principal on the condition he receive regular coaching and mentoring for a year.

“In my discussions with Mr. Zamudio he expressed regret and remorse for the issues in his former school,” Stover wrote. “I am convinced that he will make every effort not to repeat the same and that his experience and knowledge as a Principal will be of great value to the students at Olympian.”

Now years later, Woodard, still a science teacher at Hilltop High School, reflects on the way Zamudio’s behavior was handled and sees room for improvement.

“I think there has to be very clear criteria for what is acceptable and not acceptable in the workplace and there needs to be some type of consequence that’s very clearly communicated so there is no ambiguity,” she said. “I just feel like there needs to be clear guidelines for principals and what could constitute harassment or bullying.”

Principals in the district now receive several trainings a year, and three years ago, the district began an “aspiring administrators academy where participants are given tools how to create a safe and healthy learning environment as they progress in their careers,” said Rubio, the district spokesman.

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

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