Former Poway Unified superintendent John Collins appears at an arraignment hearing. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Former Poway Unified School District superintendent John Collins pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Wednesday as part of a deal that resolved his criminal and civil cases.

As first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, Collins pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime for failing to properly file a state-mandated economic interest form, known as a Form 700. The admission centers on Collins’ failure to report consultant income received while working as superintendent.

Collins, who served as top executive of the Poway school district from July 2010 to July 2016, was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to comply with the terms of a civil settlement reached simultaneously with the school district.

To settle the civil case, Collins agreed to pay Poway Unified $185,000 over the next 18 months. If civil payments are not made, it will violate his criminal probation and Collins could face a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, said Tanya Sierra, spokeswoman for the San Diego district attorney’s office.

In exchange, prosecutors dropped four felony charges for misappropriation of public funds. Collins was facing up to five to seven years in custody if convicted on all charges, which were tied to his alleged misuse of the district credit card and excessive vacation and leave time.

Collins’ guilty plea will not affect his $296,500 annual pension, since he pleaded to a misdemeanor charge and not a felony.

Poway Unified fired and then sued Collins in 2016 for alleged fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. The district sought to recover $300,000 to $400,000 in payments the district alleged Collins took beyond what he was owed in his contract.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing stripped Collins of his teaching and administrator credential last summer for misconduct.

“Up until now, Dr. Collins never had an opportunity, a real forum, to answer the charges and the result is this conclusion,” said Paul Pfingst, Collins’ defense attorney. Collins “has a real affection for the staff and students of Poway, but strongly feels that the charges and the civil suit should not have ever been brought, but he is happy to have it behind him.”

Poway school board president T.J. Zane said before his termination in July 2016, Collins “was afforded a hearing per the terms of his contract, a hearing with the board. Certainly, he was not able to plead his case like a high-powered attorney like Mr. Pfingst was able to. His hearing was not the same sort of venue as the courtroom.”

Zane said district officials were “pursuing justice for the district” after a forensic audit identified a variety of overpayments to Collins, but ultimately agreed to settle rather than continue to spend money to try to recover the full amount and risk not getting anything back.

“I think first and foremost, there is definitely a sense of relief. It’s been going on for quite some time. I don’t think it’s been enjoyable for anybody. I think the board felt the settlement amount was fair and reasonable, considering the cost to the district of pursuing more,” Zane said.

All parties agreed to pay their own attorney fees. For Poway Unified, attorneys’ fees for the civil case against Collins will likely total around $300,000 when the final bills are processed, Poway Superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps estimated.

“A concern of our office in any plea agreement is that victims are satisfied with the result, including restitution. In this case, the losses alleged in the civil case are nearly 10 times higher than those that are in evidence in the criminal case,” said Sierra. “This settlement allows the school district to be reimbursed for their losses at a much greater level and move forward to focus on the education of students, while still forcing the defendant to admit to a level of criminal misconduct. A byproduct of filing this criminal case is exposing the harm taking place to the public and reminding those responsible for monitoring public funds in other districts to take that duty seriously.”

Kim-Phelps said the district is ready to move on.

“We are excited to move forward, and we are focused on educating our students and we will continue to make positive changes in improving our internal controls and processes,” she said.

Ashly McGlone

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

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