Chris Garnier, flanked by Rev. Shane Harris (left) and Kimberly Garnier (right)
Much of the focus on the firing of Poway Unified School District superintendent John Collins on July 13 has related to the alleged misappropriation of more than $300,000 in district funds, either improperly issued as vacation pay or directed to the accounts of his lawyers. But local leaders of Al Sharpton's National Action Network say the problems created by Collins's tenure go deeper, reflecting a lack of concern for minority students and an insider mentality that fails to address the needs of all students.
"There was a time when I loved John Collins, when I looked to him as a mentor," said local National Action Network chapter vice president Chris Garnier, who grew up attending Poway schools and was at one point a district staffer (a wrongful-termination suit is currently working its way through the courts).
"It breaks my heart that he placed a restraining order on me without board approval, that because of my strong stance on minority issues and taxpayer protection that he went after me....
"John Collins and his lack of tolerance has pushed me into the arena of social justice. His firing comes with a feeling of jubilation due to his lack of inclusion and lack of commitment to social justice."
Garnier and his father-in-law, Keith Wilson, were the subjects of restraining orders Collins sought without school-board permission but used district funds to pay law firm Shinoff & Holtz to obtain.
Garnier's wife Kimberly, also a National Action Network officer, lobbed additional complaints.
"Some of our test scores are among the highest because [Poway Unified School District] gets rid of students it considers undesirable, who do not perform well on tests," Kimberly said. "Some principals have actually taken their struggling students aside for testing, and those students score remarkably high when [high scores] wouldn't be the logical result. Corruption runs deep here, but the good outweighs the bad....
"The district made a beautiful first step by getting rid of John Collins, but there's more work to be done."
Going forward, the group says they'll closely monitor replacement nominees with an eye toward those who will bring fresh ideas to the table and focus on considering minorities' needs in a predominantly white district. Other grievances will also be addressed.
"There's still a lot of work to do — we have to rid the community of the billion-dollar improvement bond, the Shinoff law firm, and crooks and cronies in the system," Chris Garnier continued. Shinoff's firm has faced criticism before and, despite malpractice claims, is said by the National Action Network to still handle a majority of the county's school-district claims.
Network chapter president Shane Harris referred to an "education achievement gap" that he said was "important because it clearly defines the failures of the education system to properly educate every culture within that system."
Nominees for a permanent replacement for Collins, the group says, should be mindful of the unique challenges faced by students who don't fit the perceived profile of a Poway district resident.
"I think probably the biggest thing is to bring in someone from outside the community," said Chris Garnier. "I grew up here, and this community is, for a lack of a better word, a bit incestuous. We continue to promote from within, and the idea is to have a national search to bring in ideas from outside that can burst this insular bubble in which the district operates."
The group says they'll continue to engage with Poway school-board members as the search to replace Collins commences; they'll also seek to expand their platform by pushing for practices that provide for greater minority inclusion to other school districts across North County.