By Alberto Garcia
John Collins,the former Superintendent of Poway Unified School District, was arraigned in court Thursday on four felony counts stemming from allegations he withdrew vacation and sick pay without the approval of the school board, and for using school district funds for his own use.
Collins was fired from his position as Superintendent on July 9, 2016, after an internal investigation revealed he had taken $345,000 from the school district through unauthorized payments.
At the time, Collins was one of the highest paid school administrators in the state, with a total annual pay of over $450,000.
Last Friday, the San Diego County District Attorney’s office indicted Collins on three felony counts of appropriating funds without authority, and one felony count of misappropriation of funds.
If convicted, Collins could face two, three, or four years in prison for each of the three counts.
Specifically, the charging document states that Collins illegally cashed out vacation time, sick leave, and excessive leave time, and charged over $24,000 in personal expenses to his official district “p-card”, or purchasing card, including hotel charges for a trip to Disneyland by Collins’ wife.
The internal investigation conducted by the District before Collins was fired revealed he was in financial distress. Documents from his district computer included emails between Collins and his wife wherein they discussed having to cover expenses that could bounce because they only had hundreds of dollars in the bank. Their financial troubles extended back to 2013 when they conducted a short-sale on their home.
Collins is due back in court on September 29 for a readiness conference, then on October 17 for a preliminary hearing.
Collins is also facing a civil lawsuit filed by the Poway school district seeking to recover the misappropriated funds. That case is still pending a trial date.
The allegations against Collins last year came on the heels of a California Supreme Court decision in June 2016 in the case of Jeff Hubbard, the former superintendent of Beverly Hills School District. In that case, Hubbard was accused of misappropriating school district funds when he approved a $20,000 bonus and $500 monthly car allowance for a district employee without the approval of the school board.
Hubbard was originally convicted of two felony counts, but the convictions were overturned by the appellate court.
The California Supreme Court later reinstated the convictions, finding that district superintendents are criminally liable for misappropriation of funds. The Hubbard case established the legal precedent that holds superintendents to the highest standard of fiduciary duty to protect the funds of school districts.
Last year, within days of Collins’ firing, the County Board of Education also fired its superintendent, Randy Ward, for similar reasons. Ward had been accused of giving himself retroactive raises, as well as modifying his employment contract to include a “me-too” clause that ensure him pay raised equal to those given to county district teachers, causing a conflict-of-interest because Ward negotiating the raises for teachers, and, therefore, himself, too.
Ward’s firing came just days after a local non-profit, the California Taxpayers Action Network, filed a lawsuit claiming Ward was self-dealing in taking the automatic pay raises. Although “me-too” clause can be legal, the fact that Ward benefited from raises connected to the raises he gave teachers could be viewed as a conflict. That case is still pending.
In another similar case, the superintendent of the San Ysidro School District, Julio Fonseca, was sued in March 2017 by a local non-profit, San Diegans for Open Government, for approving a $114,000 settlement with a former district employee that alleged he was terminated after raising questions about Fonseca hiring a woman with which he was having a romantic relationship.
The lawsuit claims Fonseca misappropriated the funds without board approval, in a situation similar to the Hubbard case. That civil case is still pending.