San Diego Unified Moved a Problem Principal to Districtwide Role, Then Paid Him to Leave - Voice of San Diego

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San Diego Unified Moved a Problem Principal to Districtwide Role, Then Paid Him to Leave

San Diego Unified determined former Serra High principal Vincent Mays harassed employees and faked his diploma. It gave him a central office job, then paid him not to work for 17 months and agreed not to tell future employers about his conduct.

Junipero Serra High School in Tierrasanta / Photo by Megan Wood

San Diego Unified School District has a history of moving problem principals into a role known as “principal on special assignment” at the central office.

One principal who transferred to the program allegedly covered up sexual abuse at Green Elementary School. A second racked up $200,000 in donations that weren’t backed up by receipts. Another appeared to have falsified his credentials – presenting a Ph.D. from a university in England that seemed to be nothing more than a website. That was Vincent Mays, and the Ph.D. was just a small part of his story.

New documents obtained by Voice of San Diego through a public records request show Mays’ problems in the district went far beyond a fake diploma. A district investigation concluded he also engaged in quid-pro-quo sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment at Junipero Serra High School in Tierrasanta.

And Mays got much more than a central office job for his dubious record, the new documents show. After about a year of working on special assignment – making roughly $143,000 a year – the district then paid him an additional $110,000 just to make him go away.

In exchange for his resignation, which took effect in February, the district also agreed not to tell future employers about Mays’ misconduct. Should he try to land another job as a principal or teacher, San Diego Unified officials won’t be able to give that school any hint he was a bad employee, per the resignation agreement. His future colleagues, students and their parents will have to figure it out on their own.

Along the way, district officials consistently stuck to the story that they were moving Mays to the central office because of his expertise and not because he was a problem principal. And even when asked in recent months whether Mays was still on staff, district officials said he had resigned, instead of admitting he was still receiving a paycheck from the district.

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From the time he arrived from Newark Public Schools in 2014, Mays seems to have treated Serra High School as his kingdom.

He ruled by decree, not consensus-building, according to interviews with fellow educators in his district case file and interviews conducted by Voice of San Diego. And he also took liberties in the way he spoke to women.

But Mays also knew how to make a good first impression. Kristin Schwall, a parent with two children who attended Serra, remembers the first assembly in 2014 when Mays addressed the whole school.

“He was a good speaker. My impression was that he was like a good motivational speaker, but did not have a lot of hard facts,” she said. “His tag phrase during that meeting was ‘We’re going to make Serra the best school in the universe.’”

“The man has a golden tongue. He can make anyone feel amazing for 10 minutes. I’ve never been around a talker like that,” said Peter Oskin, a former Serra teacher.

But despite Mays’ charisma, his popularity started to deteriorate relatively quickly with some teachers.

Mays did not respond to interview requests from Voice of San Diego.

“It was very clear from the beginning that he was not interested in collaborating. He had his own way of doing things and he wasn’t interested in hearing other people even though it was his first year at Serra,” Nick Cincotta, a special education teacher at Serra High, told me.

Some of the teacher’s complaints against him were relatively minor, but taken together they undermined his effectiveness as a leader and “alienated and divided staff,” according to the conclusions of a district investigation into Mays’ behavior during the 2014-15 school year.

Staff members laid out their complaints in interviews with district officials: He was dismissive of staff in meetings and talked over them, according to multiple reports. He made at least one person feel personally humiliated. He criticized the school’s vice principals for how they made the schedule; cursed in administrative meeting; called one group of teachers “keystone cops”; did not get input on a student’s suspension and refused to allow one department head to be involved in hiring people for her own department.

The names of complainants in the district’s files are redacted. But multiple reports in the file also describe Mays speaking with strong sexual innuendo to female employees and inviting them on dates.

In one case, a boy and girl student had been making out at school. The boy wanted to keep going. But the girl told him to stop. The boy did not listen at first, but then stopped his advances. A woman who worked at the school asked Mays if the boy would be punished.

Mays said he would not. “It would be like if I invited you ______ to my apartment for dinner. We had dinner, then we began to get intimate. I took off your clothes and you took off mine. Then we were nipple to chest. Just when I was about to enter you, you said no,” Mays said to the woman, according to the district case file.

On another occasion, Mays was speaking to a woman in front of a group of people. “You won’t need a Red Bull, you’ll need a black bull. You’ll feel it, it will wake you up,” he said. Mays then made a “hand gesture grabbing an imaginary object and stroking it to his mouth as his eyes opened wide and his mouth opened, as if he were performing oral sex,” according to the report.

Mays made other sexual comments as well. He also repeatedly told one employee he wanted to spend his free weekend time with her. And he asked another to give him the details of her after-work schedule, according to the file.

District investigative files include staffers’ descriptions of then-Serra High principal Vincent Mays’ behavior and how it impacted them.

He gave one employee a promotion and shortly after, asked her to go on a date. After two dates, the employee declined to go on a third. District officials determined this did not constitute sexual harassment, but did say the timing of the promotion, combined with asking the employee out, was “suspicious.”

Much of Mays’ behavior did not rise to the official level of misconduct, district administrators determined. But in one instance, it did.

Mays persistently asked an employee who was coming up for evaluation to go out to lunch. The employee tried to demur, but eventually said yes. Afterward, Mays began pressuring her for dinner and a walk on the beach. The employee “felt she could not refuse because he was her boss and he [had] not given her a teaching evaluation yet,” the report concluded.

“These situations were initiated by you and resulted in an imbalance of power due to your position as her supervisor, this is considered quid pro quo harassment,” Shirley Wilson, an area superintendent, wrote to Mays in an official letter of reprimand.

That was in June 2015. At the time, it might have made sense for the district to try to force him to leave, through a payout or termination proceedings. But the most inscrutable part of the Mays story is that the district kept him at Serra for another year, then transferred him to the central office and ultimately kept him on as an employee until February of this year.

Mays was only forced out of Serra when three teachers started their own unofficial investigation into his behavior. And even then, San Diego Unified officials aggressively defended Mays, despite internal knowledge that he created a hostile work environment and sexually harassed an employee.

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“All it really took was 20 minutes of googling and a couple of phone calls for us to figure it out,” said Oskin, the former Serra High teacher.

Oskin, along with two other teachers, Nick Cincotta and Ralf Uebel, decided – given Mays’ behavior and poor relationship with some staff – to take a closer look at their principal’s background toward the end of his second year, during spring 2016.

Within minutes, Oskin said, it became clear that Mays’ Ph.D. seemed fake. Stamford Hill University in England actually appeared to be nothing more than a website. (The website has since gone offline.) No record of the university could be found in the United Kingdom or the United States, NBC San Diego reported at the time.

The district immediately stepped in to defend Mays’ doctorate and help launch a counter-attack against the teachers. “These vicious personal attacks on Dr. Vincent Mays are shameful,” district officials wrote in a statement to NBC San Diego. “He has every necessary certification and more importantly the skills necessary to lead Serra High School. He has and will continue to have the full support of the district.”

But because the teachers filed an official complaint, district officials were forced to look into Mays’ Ph.D. Relatively quickly, they discovered the teachers were right. Mays was unable to provide any documentation to prove he actually completed coursework at Stamford Hill. And a district investigator found no conclusive evidence the university had ever in fact existed, according to a district report obtained by NBC San Diego at the time.

Mays – who sweated profusely during an interview with the district investigator, grew irate and continually referred to the investigation as “bullshit” – said he received and turned in assignments through the mail, according to the report. As far as he knew, Stamford Hill was real, he said.

In order to get Mays out of Serra, district officials convinced him to transfer to a position they created just for him. He would be a principal on special assignment, focusing on equity issues and closing the achievement gap. He would make the same salary, roughly $143,000 per year.

In an email to Serra staff, he wrote, “The position is so attractive that I could not refuse it.”

District officials painted the move as a chance to scale out Mays’ achievements districtwide. “The district often shifts principals to other assignments in order to utilize his/her unique set of skills and expertise in particular areas,” Jennifer Rodriguez, a former district spokeswoman, wrote in an email to NBC San Diego. “This is the case with Vincent Mays.”

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Last September, I wanted to find out what had become of the principals on special assignment. I emailed spokeswoman Maureen Magee and asked her where some of the problem principals, including Mays, had ended up. She said the program was completely finished, no more principals worked on special assignment and that Mays had resigned from the district.

That wasn’t exactly true.

What Magee didn’t say is that Mays was still on the district’s payroll. He had agreed to resign, but that resignation would not take effect for several months.

When asked about this discrepancy, Magee responded in an email, “When you asked if he still worked for the district I responded he resigned, which was correct.”

Mays spent about a year in the district’s special assignment program, before the district struck a deal with him. In September 2017, he agreed to resign on two conditions: district officials would have to keep him on paid administrative leave on a teacher’s salary for a year and five months, and they would agree not to tell future employers about his misconduct, according to the separation agreement.

“The district seeks to resolve personnel matters effectively,” Magee said of the agreement.  “The district notified the Commission on Teacher Credentialing about Mr. Mays’ resignation and the circumstances surrounding it. The CTC has the authority to pursue it as it sees fit.”

School districts are required to notify the CTC of substantial misconduct. They are not required to sign agreements agreeing to keep misconduct silent. The CTC has the authority to revoke Mays’ teaching credential in the state of California.

In all – May’s salary during his paid leave added up to roughly $110,000 – it cost California taxpayers about $250,000 to get rid of Mays. During that time, he was not “required to perform any work,” according to the separation agreement. His last day on the district’s payroll was Feb. 28, 2019, five months after Magee told me he resigned.

“It’s quite a costly venture to try to fire a certificated employee, whether it’s a teacher or management,” said Donis Coronel, executive director of San Diego Unified’s management union and a former director of human resources for the district. (The management union did not represent Mays; he chose to secure his own counsel.) She said it can cost both sides between $100,000 and $200,000 to fight a termination.

If the district had tried to fire Mays after the sexual harassment investigation in his first year, it almost certainly would have saved money. During his next year as principal, his year on special assignment and his time on paid leave, the district paid him nearly $400,000 total. Looking at the paid leave payout in isolation, the district probably saved money.

“In both sides of the system there are flaws,” said Coronel.

State education code puts several layers of job protection in place that make termination extremely expensive. Because of that, it is often in a district’s financial interest to pursue a settlement agreement, she said. But Coronel understands that the separation agreements can cause problems for future employers too.

“The internet is available. You can Google someone and find out a lot of information,” she said. “I also understand it can make it difficult if there hasn’t been any media or that person hasn’t been written about.”

Mays, meanwhile, promotes himself through various social media channels and two webpages as a motivational speaker, communications consultant, coach, community leader, mental fitness consultant and aspiring author. In a January post on New Year’s resolutions he wrote, “In 2019, embrace positivity! Nothing wastes time more efficiently than wallowing in regret and self-pity … Think things into existence! If you set your mind to something, you can accomplish great things.”

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