This post has been updated.

The Poway Unified School District board believes former Superintendent John Collins, who was fired Sunday, took hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized pay, according to dismissal charges obtained by Voice of San Diego and an audit report released by the district Monday.

According to the documents, Collins was also censured for filing litigation without the school board’s approval, and for interfering with the district’s investigation into his financial dealings.

The board could ask a court to force Collins to pay back as much as $345,000 – the amount forensic auditors flagged as unauthorized pay.

Communications by Collins unearthed in the district’s investigation suggest some of the money may have been used to pay for a personal attorney who unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a buyout of his contract, which had one year remaining.

In the district’s charges, the board lays out the myriad ways it believes Collins engaged in illegal self-dealing, unprofessional conduct, dishonesty and misappropriation and gifting of public funds.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Some descriptions in the documents make it sound as if certain district accounts became a sort of personal piggy bank for Collins – whose compensation made him the second-highest paid K-12 public school educator in the state.

Collins, who served as superintendent for six years, declined an interview request through his wife, Lisa Collins, who is a teacher in the Poway district.

The charges, written with findings from a two-month forensic audit that began when Collins was placed on paid leave April 25, offer a painstakingly detailed look at the allegedly troubling transactions and actions by Collins.

The board “did not take this action lightly, nor come to the decision precipitously,” board president Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff said in a statement. She said the board was “dismayed” at the volume of financial irregularities and overpayments auditors found. “The severity of the findings justified terminating the superintendent’s contract for cause,” she said.

Below is a summary of what the board says justified his termination.

Vacation Pay

One of the costliest areas of concern for the board dealt with Collins’ vacation days.

Collins’ employment contract grants him 30 days of vacation a year, not including national and local holidays granted to other managers. Vacation days roll over year to year, up to a maximum of 60 days. His contract allows him to cash out unused vacation upon departure from the job.

Yet, forensic auditors found that Collins on four separate occasions since August 2012 directed the business chief to pay him for vacation time.

Collins cashed out 116 vacation days in recent years, to the tune of at least $148,400, according to the documents.

On July 31, 2014, Collins was even allowed to cash out 64 days for $87,192, resulting in a negative vacation balance.

Last November, Collins had his staff cut him a check for $17,000 in vacation pay out of the district’s revolving cash fund after telling business chief Malliga Tholandi he needed the money for an attorney he had hired, according to the district’s investigation. The fund is supposed to be limited to small purchases of $150 or less, and emergency payments.

The five-member board of education and Collins began separation talks shortly thereafter.

In the weeks before the payment, Collins used his district-issued iPad to text his wife repeatedly about financial hardships they were facing. In one message on Oct. 15 he reportedly said, “All I was trying to do on my phone at the game tonight was try to figure out a way to get the money needed to help both us and Ginger before December. I think I found a way.”

“He did in fact find a way — misappropriating public funds, through the revolving cash fund,” the district charged. “Dr. Collins’ use of ‘vacation cash out’ to address financial hardship was so prevalent, and informal that the District’s Employee Leave Information was grossly inaccurate.”

At no point did the board approve the vacation payouts, and some days paid were never deducted from his vacation bank, the district claims.

Auditors also found Collins took time off work without docking it from his vacation time.

The district’s calendar showed Collins took the entire month of July 2015 off, totaling 22 days, but he only claimed 10 vacation days and two sick days. Then in February this year, Collins told the board he would be taking an indefinite amount of time off following the death of a relative and to tend to a medical issue.

Collins was informed by the board president March 17 he would get the same number of bereavement days as other employees and would need to follow state and district rules for taking sick leave.

On April 22, Collins told his wife via text message he wasn’t going to work, but the time off was not reported to the district. Another text said he had surgery on Feb. 25, but that day also was not logged with the district.

Longevity Pay

Another pricey area of concern centers on Collins’ longevity pay, or payments for achieving 10, 15, 20 and 25 years of work for the district.

Though the incentive is plainly stated in his contract as a perk paid “at the completion” of the landmarks, Collins received a whopping $144,692 in “annual, compounded and cumulative” longevity payments. That amount should have been just $12,602 total for completing 20 years in 2010 and 25 years in 2015, according to auditors with accounting firm Vicente Lloyd Stutzman.

And Collins appears to have tried to take even more.

In December, Collins asked Tholandi to analyze the cost of increasing the longevity pay for all managers, including him.

He wrote in an email, “I’m thinking this could be effective 1-1-2016. So anyone currently receiving longevity for 15, 20, or 25 would just start getting their longevity recalculated to the new number going forward.”

Collins, with 27 years at the district, would have received the highest boost proposed of 4 percent, or an extra $43,000 using the improperly compounded calculation method. The proposal was never implemented but would have cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, posed a conflict of interest and amounted to illegal self-dealing, the district claims.

More Problems

According to the district, Collins also abused the revolving cash fund, an account that is supposed to be limited to small purchases and emergency payments.

Collins received $1,646 for internet service, paid in eight installments in recent years. He also received three advances for travel totaling $900 and $1,119 for travel reimbursement. Some of those expenses, including the $17,000 vacation payout, violated the fund’s $150 limit and required circumventing internal controls that are supposed prevent such activities, the district claims.

As someone charged with the safekeeping of district money, Collins’ actions may be criminal and “constitute misappropriation of public funds, and a breach of his fiduciary duties,” the district wrote.

Collins is also accused of violating strict state conflict of interest laws late last year by trying to negotiate a severance or settlement contract “both as the District’s Superintendent and as the adverse party to the District.”

He did so by directing the board Nov. 19 to use an attorney already contracted with the district to negotiate with his personal attorney, Lynne Lasry. Collins also tried scheduling multiple special board meetings to get departure negotiations under way.

One such meeting was ultimately canceled after the district’s general counsel, Dan Shinoff, received a call from the San Diego County district attorney’s office after concerns were raised over the legality of the meeting.

Shinoff wrote to Collins, “Just got a call from DA’s office. Spoke to DA. He doesn’t want his hand to be forced. Cancel the meeting.”

In February, knowing his interests were averse to the district’s, Collins sought legal advice from the district’s general counsel, the documents say.

Collins asked Shinoff if the board could hold a serial meeting, rather than a group closed session meeting, without violating state open-meetings laws to give their attorney direction regarding litigation threatened by Collins.

Shinoff responded, “With any threat of litigation they can hold a closed session and give direction to counsel. All the best to you and your family.”

Collins also reportedly used the district credit card for personal expenses, like family airline travel.

Just before Collins was placed on paid leave and told to relinquish access to the district and his district-owned belongings, his assistant sent him a text message.

Tina McDowell said she was “feeling uncomfortable about the Board being here on Sunday. Unless you are planning on being here over the weekend, I am loading up files (from the stack on your desk) and taking them home with me,” she wrote April 22.

Collins replied, “I will not be there. Thanks for doing that.” McDowell then messaged Collins the day he was placed on leave, April 25: “I have files from your desktop last week in my car. Shall I bring them to your house after work.”

Collins replied, “Yes please and the drive.”

The charges say Collins’ actions interfered with the district’s investigation.

Restraining Orders

Another major concern for the board arose in January, when it discovered Collins had initiated legal action and sought four restraining orders without board permission.

Out of four restraining order attempts by Collins since 2014, three of them took aim at a family openly critical of Collins and the district.

One of the workplace violence restraining orders sought in 2014 was filed against district parent and former employee Chris Garnier, who’s now locked in two costly legal battles with the district – one to overturn the restraining order and a second for wrongful termination.

Collins also sought a restraining order against Garnier’s father-in-law, Keith Wilson, who had also publicly lobbed harsh personal and professional criticism at Collins. Collins had told the court he feared for his and his family’s safety.

That legal action was filed by Shinoff in Collins’ name – not the district’s name, in violation of state law – but the district nonetheless paid the legal bill, according to the charges. The effort was unsuccessful.

Looking Back and Ahead

Collins, 62, began his teaching career at San Diego Community College District’s Kearny Adult School in 1978, before moving on to Hoover High School in San Diego Unified. A few years later, he became assistant principal at Twin Peaks Middle School in Poway, then principal at Rancho Bernardo High before heading to the Poway Unified district office for jobs as area superintendent, deputy superintendent and chief business officer. He took the top job in July 2010.

Collins enjoyed unwavering support from the teacher’s union leadership during his tenure. Both touted the success of their negotiation methods, which averted a strike and layoffs during even the harshest economic times.

Poway students also consistently posted high marks on the state’s former standardized tests.

His tenure as superintendent wasn’t all rosy though.

Collins grabbed headlines nationally in 2012 for a $1 billion bond deal that sparked state school bond reform. He also attracted criticism in the last year for his handling of a consultant report and his financial interest in teacher and manager pay negotiations.

His contract to lead the 36,000-student district with a $300,000 base salary wasn’t set to expire until June 30, 2017.

Last month, the school board selected Edward Velasquez to serve as interim superintendent beginning Aug. 1. District leaders are now preparing to launch a search for a permanent replacement.

Update: After this story published, Collins’ attorney Lynne Lasry sent us a statement:

It is unfortunate and troubling that the Board of PUSD, in terminating Dr. Collins’ contract with the District, has released an alleged independent audit that is replete with errors, both legal and substantive, including privacy violations of Dr. Collins and others (even in the “redacted” form). It is, however, expressly noted in the first paragraph of the released audit that it “does not express an opinion regarding the existence of fraud.”

Without going into detail about the legal and factual errors in the audit and other issues with the Board, the audit clearly ignores evidence which supports Dr. Collins, and includes questionable presentations of summaries which rely on unseen documents and/or mischaracterizations of many circumstances and events.

In addition, Dr. Collins has been systematically denied access to witnesses and documents to defend his position. Dr. Collins denies that he failed to substantially perform his duties as required of a retained Superintendent of PUSD or as required by his contract with the District. Further, he denies that he has intentionally or recklessly engaged in conduct that was designed to be dishonest, or that he intentionally or recklessly violated any other law of this State.

For the almost 3 decades that Dr. Collins has served PUSD, he has had the best interests of its students and its employees in mind. Dr. Collins will vigorously defend against these charges, and expects to take affirmative and decisive action in response to the District’s actions.

Update II: The forensic audit released by Poway Unified is a public document and includes the cell phone numbers of several district employees. VOSD initially printed the version released by the district but has since redacted the cell phone numbers voluntarily at the request of one of the employees.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Collins completed 10 years of service in Poway Unified in 2010 and 15 years in 2015. He completed 20 years of service in 2010 and 25 years in 2015. An earlier version of this post also misspelled the name of Collins’ attorney, Lynne Lasry. 

    This article relates to: Corrections, Education, Must Reads, School Finances, School Leadership

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at or 619.550.5669.

    Robert Bowser
    Robert Bowser

    The PUSD Board of Ed has just given Dr. Collins all the ammunition needed for a multi-million $ lawsuit against the district.  His lawyer must be salivating.  The stupidity of this Board of Ed is amazing.  

    They could have fired Dr. Collins at any time.  Only cost would have been one year of compensation.  Instead, they hired a lawyer (maybe $200K), an incompetent 'forensic accountant' (maybe $100K), and then fired him (maybe $2M lawsuit for false termination and character assassination).  Stellar fiscal responsibility by the Board.  

    The Board hires a 'forensic accountant' to audit things, and then releases the report before anyone in the personnel department of the District has a chance to do any sort of quality check of the accuracy of the 'audit'.  And I would suspect the 'forensic accountant' was suggested by either Kim Beatty or Charles Sellers. Cronyism on parade.  Pay for Play is next on the agenda for District Policy.

    This idiocy by the Board is going to cost PUSD.  Not only in monetary terms.  The Administration of the District has been decimated.  The exodus has begun.  The good teachers will soon follow them out the door.  Test scores will plummet.  The days of PUSD being an award winning district are over.

    But the real losers are going to be the kids.

    Obviously, PUSD is going to get a new Superintendent.  Good luck finding one willing to work with the current Board of Ed.

    PUSD needs a new Board of Ed.  Now.  One that actually cares about educating the kids.

    Tom Moore
    Tom Moore

    @Robert Bowser  Robert you really need to read the charges. Let's see if the DA will bring felon criminal charges.  If convicted Collins will lose his retirement and go to jail.  Let's hope that DA will bring charges.  Plus Shinnoff is not a criminal attorney; meaning poor old John will have to spend his own money for his defense.  The real losers are the taxpayers. 

    DavidM subscriber

    Despite the several corrections and updates, an outstanding piece of investigative journalism.  Some bigger picture issues, though:

    1.  How many stupid restraining orders does this make for Shinoff and his firm?  Seriously, I've lost count.  And Shinoff actually has to get a call from an ADA before he decides what is right?

    2.  What is the point of having a school board if the elected members have to consider a Citizen Oversight Panel (or similar name)?  Being an elected official has certain responsibilities, and if you're not going to ask questions you should have the courage to quit or be prepared for a phone call from Ashley McGlone.

    3. Why do we have stupid little financial incentives here and there for public employees intent on ginning the system for maximum compensation?  Here is your salary.  Period.  If you do something great, we'll talk about a bonus when that happens, but we're not going to negotiate an amount and the criteria; we expect you to do your job.  Oh, and this is your vacation time.  Use it or lose it; but if you use it just to not lose it we still expect your job to be completed.  Private industry would never tolerate using or cashing out more vacation time than you accrued.

    DavidM subscriber

    Just thought of another . . .

    4.  The District may ask for a return of more than $300,000.  The only way to compel that is to sue.  But the District's lawyer provided advice to him on a related subject.  What decision should we expect from Shinoff on this conflict?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I can't believe some school board actually FIRED someone, didn't negotiate a mil or so of "go away" pay.  This cannot stand; it's too radical for the system.  Based on the stated cause for termination, this guy is a scoundrel on a par with the former city manager of that small city next to L.A. 

    Nick Marinovich
    Nick Marinovich subscriber

    Excellent reporting Ashly as usual. These allegations and revelations point to several obvous issues on internal and external controls, best practice approval proceses and all that "boring stuff" that goes along with a well run government.  What should be painfully obvious to all is that the importance of independent citizen oversight and transparent behavior by the District.  Without both you run into problems. Need the reader be reminded this was the District that became the poster child for those bad (capital appreciation) bonds.  

    School Districts are more than just teachers, books, and students.  It is for all intents and purposes a big business as well and must be run accordingly with the controls and culture that demand ethical behavior.  We will see how this all unravels and what additional information is revealed. Lessons may be learned the hard way again. Thank you for the opportunity to express my personal opinion on this issue.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    During the financial melt down in 2008 a common refrain was if you want to rob a bank own one. Maybe a new refrain would be if you want rob tax money become a superintendent, Randy Ward county superintendent 100;s of thousands of dollars for him and his lackeys, and Collins Poway superintendent  taking tax money improperly from the district.  Good job if you can find one.

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    If half a million bucks a year can't buy ethical behavior, what's a School Board to do? Maybe Poway could buy a mansion (certainly not in hot Poway, maybe in La Jolla) and give their next super free accommodations while on the job. And maybe if he stays for 5 years, they can just transfer over the deed for free. Guess he'll need a limo and a chauffeur too. Hey, why not his own helicopter? Why do I get the feeling that School Boards, from Chula Vista to Poway, just aren't very fiscally smart?

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    This guy needs to be prosecuted. But the bigger crime is to the property owners of poway that have to pay off that billion dollar bond debt.

    Tom Moore
    Tom Moore

    The Board of Trustees have a legal requirement to submit all evidence that support the malfeasance and theft to the San Diego County District Attorney office for criminal felony charges. If Collins is convicted of a felony while acting in the position as Superintendent; CALSTRS is required by law to terminate Collins's retirement.  Rightfully so.

    How about the senior administrators and others did they aided and facilitate Collins in these misdeeds?  Most have retired, the board is also required to furnish all evidence of their involvement and submit to the District Attorney as well, even if they are already retired. 

    The previous Board trustees, Marc Davis, Linda Vanderveen, Todd Gutschow, Penny Ranftle all failed in their duties as trustees and blindly follow Collins down all of his failures. Thanks to Beatty and Sellers for pushing for the audit.

    The current board needs to audit Collins entire time as Superintendent.  An audit of the school bonds, what will that generate?  Millions of dollars are likely to have been stolen from the $2,000,000,000 spend illegally by the District using a no bid sale-leaseback arrangement with a single contractor.  Then there the financial advisors, bond consultants, and the attorneys with no bid contracts that Collins generated. They received millions if not hundreds of millions in fees.

    Anniej subscriber

    Ms. McGlone - one can only wonder what would have been uncovered if SUHSD Board members would have honored their campaign promise to call for a forensic audit. I see MANY similarities between Mr. Collins and 'certain' previous leadership at SUHSD.

    San Diego City and County residents, when is enough enough? How many other stories of failed leadership will we need to read before we rise up and demand change?

    We are talking about educational dollars.........

    SUHSD, San Ysidro, County Board of Ed, Poway, and SD Unified - one can only wonder 'who is next'?

    Marilynn Gallagher
    Marilynn Gallagher subscribermember

    Ashly, you did it again.  I wonder how many other districts are beset with similar indiscretions?  To think a family like the Garniers have had to live with being legally ostracized from their childrens schools.The Garniers deserve a Big apology.

    Taz Walker
    Taz Walker

    This is pretty funny.  Typical lynch mob mentality.  Anybody know Mr. Collins personally? 

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    @Taz Walker  No, we only know of him by his audit trail, and that's looking pretty bad. Another moral compass might be why he used school district legal muscle to attempt to obtain restraining orders (unsuccessfully four times, so district counsel seems either incompetent or unethical or both) against his critics. So far, we haven't heard anything about motive; with a very generous salary, why was Collins turning over every rock to find ever more cash? BTW, the mindset of Collin's assistant is dismaying; her allegiance is to her boss and not to the school district. Perhaps she too has a salary that has compromised her ethics.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Sweetwater Onion or Poway No-way?


    Can't decide

    anahsrad subscriber

    Great reporting Ashly. Maybe now PUSD and the Board of Education can return to putting its full focus on high quality education for our children #TeamPUSD. 

    @Erik Bruvold - I fully agree that reforms will need to be established and enforced so this can be detected and manged much sooner.

    anahsrad subscriber

    @Tom Moore @anahsrad I have been thinking about that all evening through this morning. This is very disturbing and what I would like to know is what was known when, who signed off on it and why were the process in place not used to stop this. It is a big challenge and likely much deeper than many wish to stomach.

    There needs to be a thorough, objective investigation with proposed solutions. The public is justified in expecting that.

    anahsrad subscriber

    @Maura Larkins @anahsrad Toche regarding my words return! Transparency is only the beginning; accountability requires consequences. What I would like to see is our public come together, though, with the mindset of reform, not just reactionary sensationalism. Its time to roll up our sleeves and start solving these problems. Its going to take a will of the people and full collaboration of the board and administration for this to happen. I would not advocate for a lynch mob mindset - let the rule of law prevail.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @anahsrad I certainly agree that full focus needs to be placed on quality education. I'm not sure exactly what time in the past we would want to return to. John Collins and Randy Ward didn't invent the corrupt system we have now. The system is fully entrenched and it goes very high and very wide. I agree that reform is needed, starting with transparency.

    Tom Moore
    Tom Moore


    How about the senior administrators that aided and facilitate Collins in these misdeeds?  When will they get their just rewards? Most have retired, but a complaint to CALPERS can have their retirements terminated. 


    Pam Logemann
    Pam Logemann

    I am so proud of our school board for having the courage and tenacity to investigate Mr. Collins.  This has been long over due as Mr. Collins has been destroying our school district for years!  The previous school board members should be investigated for their part in allowing Mr. Collins free reign with OUR tax dollars.  THANK YOU PUSD SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS!  YOU MAKE ME PROUD...

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Why hasn't the school board referred this case to the district attorney?

    Steve Sarviel
    Steve Sarviel

    @Don Wood The wheels of justice grind slowly.  Let's congratulate the Board for taking a great first step.  I have no doubts there is enough evidence to warrant the District Attorney or a Grand Jury involvement.  In the mean time, in the interest of the best education possible for our children, I'll gladly take it one step at a time.

    JohnRileyPoway subscriber

    Wow.  I am picking my jaw up off the floor.  The sheer amount of malfeasance and theft of taxpayer dollars is shocking.  The decision by the PUSD Board to terminate Collins is overwhelmingly justified and should receive broad public support.  As a community this is a pivotal moment...  a time to start a new and rebuild our school district's brand.  

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @JohnRileyPoway I think the issue has to be thought of as a systemic one of oversight.  Question has to be what reforms to put in place to reduce problems like this in future.

    JohnRileyPoway subscriber

    @Erik Bruvold @JohnRileyPoway I agree Erik.  Oversight is crucial.  Transparency is paramount when entrusted with an approx $350M/yr budget.  I do find it interesting that the board has to walk the delicate line of overseeing the superintendent without overstepping their bounds and giving direction to staff.  So it becomes challenging to implement oversight of or by staff when the superintendent is uncooperative or cloaking unethical actions.  Thankfully the board has created various citizen review advisory committees that can provide input to the board so they have additional sets of eyes reviewing district operations.  Books need to be opened.  The public needs to be invited in.  Trust with the community has to be restored.  The board will have a big decision on their hands to hire a new superintendent with integrity of the highest order.  Implementing new processes moving forward will be very important so the district does not find itself in a similar situation down the road.  I am hopeful that this entire drama has a healthy and productive outcome.

    Maura Larkins
    Maura Larkins subscriber

    @JohnRileyPoway @Erik Bruvold I agree that "[b]ooks need to be opened" and "[t]he public needs to be invited in." Not just for Poway Unified but for SDCOE and all the districts it works with.

    Steve Sarviel
    Steve Sarviel

    @JohnRileyPoway Some of us are somewhat less surprised.  I agree this is a pivotal moment for the community and an opportunity for parents and taxpayers to make a commitment to get involved and stay involved in the education of their children and how best their tax dollars are spent for this education.  Any chance of convincing you to run again for PUSD Board so we can have another honest, practical and fiscally responsible board member to steer PUSD after this pivot?  I'd like to see someone like you to support for PUSD Board  in addition to Kimberley Beatty who has been working tirelessly for this since she was first elected.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @JohnRileyPoway @Erik Bruvold Been thinking about this John.  Again, one of my biggest beefs with the "critics" is not in substance but in style....focusing on the personalities and the individuals misses the systemic issue and ignores that the district was through this rodeo before under Bob Reeves.  So the question then becomes how do you create a check to the super - without having the board members become micro managers which is a recipe for disaster.  Been starting to think that an inspector general model (,256485&_dad=ptl) makes some sense.  PRICEY for a district our size but maybe it is needed.....especially given I think the challenges with a district office that is chalk full of so many people that have been in the district for so many years.

    JohnRileyPoway subscriber

    @Erik Bruvold @JohnRileyPoway Good idea Erik.  The board should remain at arms' length on the day-to-day operations of staff.  Citizen review committees are good, but limited, especially if staff chooses not to cooperate.  An inspector general model is a very good idea and would be well worth the investment.  To your point, an inspector general can implement and *enforce* policies to ensure transparency and keep officials honest and on their toes.  Just think of the valuable amount of information the audit uncovered.  Having someone full time doing such work would definitely be a positive culture change and give community members some assurance that there is a taxpayer watchdog on the inside.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @JohnRileyPoway @Erik Bruvold And an alternative channel for complaints.  That is the big thing (in my mind). IF (and I am doing it for the sake of argument) we take the audit 100% on face value than we need a way for lower staff - at will employees all - to have a way of crying "foul" and feeling like their voice will be heard/protected.  An IG would do that - though I worry about the expense - Luna's shop in San Diego seems like it grows more each year.

    Anniej subscriber

    Please add SUHSD to the list. Our financial were certified by SDCOE Ms. Duyzk I believe - now don't that just make the taxpayers of the So Bay feel confident - not!!!