Embattled San Juan Unified superintendent resigns

San Juan Unified School District Superintendent Glynn Thompson will step down in January following an investigation that substantiated claims from some employees of bullying and retaliation, the district announced Thursday.

Trustees accepted his resignation – officially announced as a retirement – rather than try to fire Thompson for actions that have prompted $17 million in tort claims. District leaders said allowing him to depart on his own would limit costs and give the district a fresh start as soon as possible.

Kent Kern will continue to serve as acting superintendent into early 2014, and the board will begin searching for a replacement next month, San Juan Board of Education President Lucinda Luttgen said after a closed-door meeting.

Thompson has been on paid leave since mid-May while a Sacramento law firm investigated claims that he bullied and harassed some female employees and retaliated against them when they complained to board members.

In its findings, Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corp. offered a chilling picture of a superintendent who prompted fear in those who challenged him.

Investigators said in their report that they had confirmed about a third of the 45 complaints against Thompson, including allegations of retaliation and discrimination tied to medical conditions, marital status and gender. But investigators did not find support for claims of age and race discrimination, and they rejected most of the gender discrimination complaints.

“The record fairly reflects that as an overall matter, Mr. Thompson’s conduct since his hire in 2009 created a culture of fear and disrespect that has led to distrust and dysfunction,” investigators wrote in response to one woman’s complaints.

Thompson could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The board accepted Thompson’s retirement “in lieu of termination for cause” in a 4-0 vote, according to an announcement immediately after the closed-door meeting. He will get no severance pay but will be eligible for his pension.

A termination process would have lasted more than 30 days, during which Thompson would have received his full pay, spokesman Trent Allen said. It also would have prolonged a bruising episode for the region’s third largest district, which serves nearly 47,000 students in suburban Sacramento County.

Luttgen said the process has been longer and more costly “than any of us anticipated.”

“As the number of allegations grew and the number of individual complainants climbed, it was necessary to take more time,” she said.

More than a dozen former and current employees, all female, have filed claims with the district or state alleging harassment, retaliation and discrimination, laying the groundwork for future lawsuits. The board’s action Thursday does not halt the potential for litigation.

Mary Ann Pivetti, a former principal of Skycrest Elementary School in Citrus Heights and past president of the San Juan Professional Educators Coalition, said she was glad to finally see action on the case. She filed a complaint against Thompson with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing after taking an early retirement in September 2012.

“I’m happy the day is finally here,” Pivetti said. “But it has taken such a toll on the district financially, emotionally and in lost staff expertise.”

Thompson will retire after having received a $225,000 annual salary in his final year as San Juan superintendent. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System could not provide details on Thompson’s pension since he has not yet filed paperwork to receive retirement pay, said CalSTRS spokesman Ricardo Duran.

Even if San Juan trustees had fired Thompson, his pension benefits would remain intact. Under California law, a public employee must be convicted of a felony on the job before losing a share of retirement pay.

Thompson, 57, became San Juan’s superintendent in mid-2011 after serving as the district’s chief academic officer for two years. His last day with the district is Jan. 15. He has received $152,000 while on leave.

Before joining San Juan in 2009, Thompson worked three years as an administrator for a Union City school district in the East Bay, and 20 years as an administrator, principal and teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The law firm’s investigators conducted 96 interviews with 65 witnesses and reviewed hundreds of documents. The cost of its probe has reached $177,000.

The review found that Thompson was praised as a visionary and gifted speaker and a learned instructional leader but was “resoundingly criticized for his interpersonal skills.”

“Former and current employees alike spoke to Mr. Thompson’s ‘bullying’ treatment and his constant threats to their jobs. Cabinet members described a dysfunctional leadership team in which no one dared to speak up and where the goal was simply to ‘survive.’

“Several cabinet members – key advisers to the superintendent – did not trust their own boss.”

San Juan board member Greg Paulo said Thursday he expects the district will focus mainly on California candidates in its superintendent search. “There are a lot of nuances about California financing that you don’t find in a lot of other states,” he said.

Asked if the board will look for a candidate with people skills, he said, “I think that goes without saying. We looked for that when we hired Thompson.”

But, he added, “Any time you hire anybody for anything, do you really know 100 percent what you are getting?”

Luttgen said she was surprised by the gravity of the allegations. “The fact that any of the employees were subject to some of the treatment was rather appalling,” she said.

Complainants also named two board members in their claims. The investigation did not find evidence to support the allegations made against board member Pam Costa. But investigators validated two of five complaints against board member Larry Masuoka, who served as board president for most of 2013.

According to the report, Masuoka learned from four women about Thompson’s alleged behavior as early as November 2012. The report said that when employees complained about Thompson, Masuoka “failed to initiate a prompt, impartial and thorough investigation when he knew or should have known that … the district had an obligation to respond.”

“I am certainly disappointed with the two findings that were sustained,” Masuoka said. “And I am going to improve my efforts to learn from that and also from the three (allegations) not sustained, to serve our students better.”

The investigators also said that Masuoka “sent an email reasonably understood to interfere with (one woman’s) complaint about Mr. Thompson’s inappropriate behavior.” In that email, Masuoka sent a parable to the former head of the San Juan Administrators’ Association about a bird in a pile of cow dung.

“When you’re in deep s---, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!” the closing line said.

The full board eventually took action after two women alerted board member Paulo.