The former superintendent of the Poway Unified School District says he never illegally took money from the school district and says allegations against him were based on an audit that was ‘terribly flawed and inaccurate.’
“I’ve never done anything to betray the trust of the district or benefit from my position as superintendent," Collins said. The allegations that were made against me, I had an explanation for every one of those.”
Collins made his first public comments since being charged with four felony counts of misusing public funds. He was accused of inappropriately taking more than $345,000 dollars from the district.
On Wednesday, those charges were dropped after a plea deal, in which Collins pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to disclose outside income.
Because the felony charges were dropped, Collins can continue to collect an annual pension close to $300,000.
“It’s a financial decision to be done with it," he said. "I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees. So that part has not been easy.”
Collins, speaking exclusively to NBC 7, said his legal troubles started in 2014 after a change in school board members, who pounced on a controversial 2011 bond measure to renovate schools.
The bond will eventually cost local taxpayers close to $1 billion dollars to pay off a $105 million dollar loan. Collins maintains it was a good decision.
“I believe it was a great decision," he said. "Ten thousand children have seen the last 10 years in renovated schools that would have never happened because we would have run out of money.”
He said he would not apologize for the bond, called a capital appreciation bond, that is now not allowed to be used by schools in this form because of their high future costs and risk. Payback on the loan begins in the year 2033 and will not be paid off until 2051.
Collins called it "inter-generational" debt.
“It’s going to take a long time to pay off, but whoever’s living in that property and paying that tax, they get the benefit of the better schools being built,” he said.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. In 2014, Collins found himself embroiled in a battle with several new school board members, who Collins says were trying to reducing his role as superintendent.
“They believed they should be making procedural decisions and they should be directing the work of the staff, but clearly that was my job,” he said.
By 2015, Collins’ attorney and lawyers for the district tried to negotiate a buyout of his contract. Collins says after an impasse, he was offered $20,000 which he called "insulting."
And it was at that time, he says, he learned of an audit that would eventually become the basis for the criminal allegations. The audit showed Collins improperly collected hundreds of thousands of dollars and concluded he misused school funds, took improper payouts and used a district credit card, known as a P-card, for personal expenses.
But Collins maintains the audit was inaccurate.
“If anyone reads that audit, they will see a lot of things that say ‘well we assume’ and ‘based on our calculations.’" he said. "It just wasn’t a factual audit and never was I given a chance to explain to them why they were wrong."
Collins admits to mistakenly using the credit several times, but says he reimbursed the district immediately.
“I maintain that there was never a charge on my P-card that cost the district anything for my personal use, my personal gain,” he said.
Poway Unified School District board member Charles Sellers has been an outspoken critic of Collins. In response to a request by NBC 7, Sellers sent this statement via email:
"Stating that the bond issue had anything to do with Dr. Collins' firing is a disingenuous red herring. It was in no way a consideration. It resulted in the ouster of three board members, yes. But it had nothing to do with his firing.
While his termination may have begun as a contract negotiation, which he was basically unwilling to enter into, it did not end that way. While researching the terms of his contract as part of said negotiation, we discovered several discrepancies between that contract and his W-2. After determining that we could not properly investigate these discrepancies with him in charge, we put him on paid leave.The audit subsequently conducted after his removal bore out many irregularities, some we suspected some we did not.
At the conclusion of the audit, it was clear that we would be violating our fiduciary duty if we did not fire him for cause and immediately seek recovery of these absconded funds.
While he can attempt to paint these events in whatever light he chooses, that does not change their basic nature. He knowingly took money that did not belong to him. That is theft. He did it under the guise of his authority as Superintendent. That is fraud.The ultimate victims of his unlawful acts are our children. That is reprehensible."
Meanwhile, Collins was asked what he’d like his lasting legacy to be, he said:
“I led the effort to provide equal facilities to all children in the school district, regardless of where they attended school or where they lived. I’m proud of that.
The second thing, as superintendent, I was able to maintain and enhance what I believe was a wonderful culture in the district among parent, students and staff. People were proud to work in Poway. And I built on that culture and made it even stronger.
And third, because of that, I was able to do things that were able to enhance the educational experience of students."
NBC 7’s Artie Ojeda is a former student of Collins’ and has a personal relationship with the former superintendent.