When simmering frustration with San Juan Unified Superintendent Glynn Thompson erupted this spring, it sparked a debate over whether his behavior or his mission was to blame.
Thompson's defenders say he is a change agent and that some administrators just didn't like that he was shaking things up, demanding that principals in the 47,000-student district get more involved in shaping classroom instruction.
His critics, including former administrators, counter that Thompson is mean-spirited, a bully who unfairly retaliated against people who challenged his authority.
The school board placed Thompson on paid leave last month after about a dozen administrators accused him of unfair treatment. One woman filed a formal complaint, saying she suffered depression, seizures, migraines and other medical problems after she was demoted, a job action she blames on gender and racial discrimination by the superintendent.
Thompson has served in the district's top job since 2011 and earns a $225,000 annual base salary. He contends that his efforts to reduce management positions sparked "push-back" by administrators.
For several years, Thompson and his predecessor, Pat Jaurequi, pressed a plan requiring principals to be more hands-on. Administrators at every level, including principals, were to become instructional leaders, helping to engage more students in learning to counter the effects of rising poverty in the district and increasingly disappointing test scores.
Thompson was known for delivering tough criticism to pursue that goal.
"We are, in education, a culture of 'nice,' " Thompson told The Bee. "If you give people feedback on their performance and it's not what they want to hear, often it's about them as a person."
Historically, San Juan has been high-performing compared with other California districts, but that gap has narrowed over the past decade.
In 2005, San Juan's Academic Performance Index a composite of test score results was 752, compared with a 709 statewide API. Though San Juan increased its scores in the ensuing years, the rest of the state's students saw bigger gains.
Last year, the district's API was 790, barely above the statewide API of 788.
The San Juan board in 2009 approved a five-year strategic plan designed to promote students' problem-solving skills, improve performance in English and math and raise test scores and graduation rates.
"If you stand still, you're going to fall behind," said trustee Greg Paulo. "I think that was the impetus, to be ahead of the curve."
Thompson said he wanted fewer central office administrators and more focus on classroom teaching. He called on administrators and principals to drop in on classrooms to observe teachers and how they interacted with students.
Later, administrators shared feedback.
Lucinda Luttgen, vice president of the school board, said the instructional rounds focused primarily on changing principals' responsibilities.
"Before, the principal was the boss of the school," said Luttgen. "The whole thing was a change to an instructional leader. Principals had to be able to recognize good instruction.
"We had quite an exodus of principals during that shift from boss to instructional leader. It truly is a big change."
Trustee Pam Costa said she would not comment on Thompson's job performance until after the district completes its investigation, according to San Juan spokesman Trent Allen. Other trustees did not address Thompson or specific complaints in interviews.
Mary Ann Pivetti, former principal of Skycrest Elementary and past president of the San Juan Professional Educators Coalition, said administrators never objected to reform measures.
Instead, she said, Thompson's tone often was menacing when he told her and other administrators they were being watched. He suggested that if their performance didn't measure up, they faced demotion, reassignment or job loss. Pivetti took early retirement in September.
About a dozen people have filed complaints with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, accusing Thompson of harassment, discrimination and creating a hostile workplace, typically preludes to lawsuits.
One cited gender and racial discrimination along with alleged retaliation and harassment "since filing a complaint against the district," according to a copy of the complaint, in which the filer's name was obscured.
Another, citing gender discrimination, said she was forced out of her contract as a Cabinet-level administrator and subjected to a hostile work environment.
Barbara Githens, another administrator, served 15 years as a San Juan principal before being demoted this year to teacher at the Edison Language Institute in Sacramento. She served three years as president of the San Juan Professional Educators Coalition, a 240-member group that includes principals, district officers and psychologists.
Her fall came, she said, when someone sent an anonymous letter to board members complaining that Thompson was bullying people. He asked her if she had written it, Githens said.
She said in an interview that she was not the author and that she told that to Thompson. He apparently was not convinced, she said.
"It was the nail in my coffin," Githens said. "He recommended termination. At the last hour, he decided I could be a teacher . I feel he's responsible for the destruction of 28 years of impeccable performance."
Deanna Terry worked nine years at San Juan, including eight years as principal, five of those in charge at Thomas Kelly Elementary School.
During Terry's tenure Thomas Kelly became a California Distinguished School, a state designation that comes after a school with a high share of disadvantaged students demonstrates educational excellence.
Her downfall came, she said, when she disagreed with Thompson while he was chief academic officer.
"Everything was wonderful until I crossed him," she said. "Prior to that, he thought I was great. He thought my performance was great.
"After the disagreement, he began to find things wrong and started questioning my leadership."
Terry left San Juan in 2011 and is now an elementary school principal in Colorado.
"I'm glad he's being held accountable for the way he treated people," Terry said. "San Juan lost an enormous number of incredibly gifted, dedicated principals and administrators. He is largely the reason."
Thompson said he would not comment on the specific complaints until after the district completes its investigation and resolves the situation.
"I want to trust the process," he said.
Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at the University of California, Davis, Graduate School of Management, said accomplishing big change is always difficult.
The approach she teaches her students is to have a process that appears to be fair and consistent. Not everyone will like the outcome, she said. But if the process is fair she calls it "procedural justice" people will be more accepting.
One key part of that, she said, is "interpersonal justice."
That means "treating people with respect and dignity during the process of change," she said, "using respectful language, not making insensitive comments.
"If those things are followed, any big change is going to be more successful."
Call The Bee's Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/. Staff writer Diana Lambert contributed to this story.