Teachers and staff members were stunned. The head of their elite private school outside Washington gave them a choice: a cut in pay or a cut in jobs. For many, the unsettling options came out of nowhere — and seemed at odds with spending at the Bullis School.

Bullis’s leader drove a Jaguar, then a Mercedes, at school expense. He lived in a handsome campus home owned by the school, and had it expanded. And he led the way on construction of a high-end science and technology center, which trustees said went millions over budget.

“No one could believe it,” one teacher said.

The unrest that followed the school meeting, in fall 2018, led to the eventual departure of Gerald Boarman, who had been at the helm for a decade and was credited for boosting enrollment and building up the Maryland school’s lush 102-acre campus. He stepped down in late June, his work celebrated in a tribute video in which he was hailed as one of the country’s best headmasters.

But a more complex story of Boarman’s exit is revealed by a wide range of school records and other documents obtained by The Washington Post, along with interviews with current and former parents, employees and trustees.

Together, they offer a rare glimpse inside a private school that grappled with a crisis at the top. And they show how Bullis, like many elite private schools, operated with little public scrutiny amid its difficulties — even as it reaped the tax benefits of its nonprofit status and obtained a federal loan of $2 million to $5 million in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

In late 2018, Bullis trustees voted behind closed doors that there was “cause” to terminate Boarman, according to confidential school records obtained by The Post. But they also voted to let him finish out his term. Publicly, they merely announced he would step down in June 2020 — a decision many faculty and staff members greeted with disbelief, according to interviews and letters they wrote to the board.

Boarman did not answer requests for comment made by email, telephone, text message and letter.

His supporters on the board credited him for taking Bullis to a new level of success. “He’s just been an inspirational leader,” said trustee Adam Greenberg, who declined to discuss Boarman’s tumultuous exit from the school.

In a written statement, Bullis broadly disputed claims about conflicts of interest and improper spending raised by The Post, saying a former trustee “with an apparent personal agenda has again raised dated and factually false allegations.” The statement said the school had properly addressed claims when they were raised and would not comment further because of “confidentiality considerations.”

The former trustee, David Fink, who served seven years on the board, until 2019, was treasurer and the board’s finance committee chairman when he repeatedly raised concerns, according to interviews, emails, memos and other records. His efforts were often impeded, he said, asserting that major changes are needed to improve oversight of the head of school and the flow of information to trustees.

“In my opinion,” Fink said, “there was a perfect storm of poor governance, lack of transparency and senior management’s misdeeds.”

Building up Bullis

Nestled along Falls Road in Potomac, the 90-year old Bullis School, which educates students in kindergarten through grade 12, spreads across 102 acres of bucolic suburbia. Tuition for high school students is nearly $48,000 a year.

Boarman started as head of school in 2010. He was a star educator who had won awards while in Prince George’s County — including one from The Post and Maryland principal of the year — and went on to serve as chancellor of the selective North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.

Bullis brought him back to Maryland in his early 60s.

“People were very excited to get him,” said former trustee Mark Weinberger, who recalled that Boarman appeared to learn every student’s name and turn out for nearly every school event. “He prided himself on being seen and being present.”

Boarman made a big mark on the physical appearance of the campus, pushing forward with one capital project after another, and helped grow the student body by more than 200 students, to over 800.

Trustees were thrilled early on, according to minutes of a 2013 meeting of the board’s compensation committee.

“Better than any other head in [the] DC area,” said one trustee.

“Best yet,” said another.

In 2017, the much-touted science and technology building opened in the heart of campus to praise from parents and donors — a gleaming three-story showcase of STEM education. Its name: the Dr. Gerald L. Boarman Discovery Center.

But within a year, turmoil set in.

Fink, then the school’s treasurer, sought out records of how much the Discovery Center cost. He made a presentation before the board of trustees showing a cost overrun of nearly $5.8 million, according to interviews and a copy of that presentation.

A few months later, he raised questions about the budget, school records show. Fink said that, when he complained to board chairman Patrick Caulfield about not getting records, he was told to leave Boarman alone.

Caulfield’s oversight role was complicated. The company he co-owned, Coakley & Williams Construction, was building the Discovery Center. As a trustee, Caulfield had offered to have the company do the work at cost, not taking a profit, records show. Then, in 2017, he became board chairman, a key role that placed him between Boarman and the rest of the board — including Fink.

Caulfield did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Former trustee George Mavrikes defended the two men in an interview. Boarman helped take Bullis facilities “from a ‘B’ school to an ‘A’ school,” he said, while expanding academic programs and increasing student diversity. Caulfield’s role with the Discovery Center was not a problem, he asserted.

“They did it without a fee, and it was totally disclosed to everyone,” he said. “There was no secret. They did a good job, and they did it on time.” He disputed the figure on cost overruns, recalling it as closer to $2 million to $3 million and mostly add-ons rather than overages.

A new in-house counsel

Not long after Boarman started, he hired Natasha Nazareth as Bullis’s general counsel. She had previously been general counsel at the school he led in North Carolina, and she stayed in North Carolina for most of the time she worked for Bullis. Her salary started in 2011 at $60,000 for a 20-hour week. By 2018 it had climbed to $168,000 for full-time work as general counsel and director of strategic initiatives, records show.

Meanwhile, Boarman authorized thousands of dollars in travel and hotel expenses for Nazareth to do work at the Maryland campus, according to Fink and another former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Bullis also paid $140,000 over four years for Nazareth’s children to attend Carolina Friends School, in Durham, N.C., records show. The benefit was specifically created for her, according to April 2013 emails between Boarman and the school’s business office.

Bullis typically gave teachers and administrators a 75 percent discount on their children’s tuition if accepted at the school. But for Nazareth, Bullis appeared to cover the full cost of tuition at another school for two children from 2013 to 2017, according to billing statements.

Nazareth did not answer multiple requests for comment.

Although she was still living in North Carolina, Nazareth was tapped to help lead construction of the Discovery Center. In 2016, she and Boarman traveled to Italy, billing Bullis about $4,500 for airfare, according to expense accounts that cited the Discovery Center project. They were believed to be meeting with the project’s architects and selecting Italian building materials on the trip.

In 2017, while Boarman was still in his house on Bullis’s campus, he bought a house in the Kentlands area of Montgomery County for $630,000, records show. Nazareth and her children lived in the house, according to three Bullis school directories. Mavrikes, the former trustee, said he had seen canceled checks that showed that Boarman had rented the home to Nazareth.

In May 2018, Fink went to the board about Boarman’s decisions regarding Nazareth’s employment, housing and benefits, plus other matters, alleging possible conflicts of interest. The board hired the D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly to investigate at a cost of more than $100,000, billing records show.

A few days after the investigation started, records show, Nazareth filed a hostile-workplace complaint against Fink. She left Bullis in August 2018, according to a copy of her severance agreement, which shows Bullis gave her a package worth more than $600,000 in severance, leave and other benefits.

'The balloon burst'

It was in the next month, September 2018, that Boarman offered teachers his surprising proposal: take a pay cut of 3 percent or some jobs would be cut, according to several participants and letters written to the board.

The idea was soon scrapped, educators said, but the episode set off an alarm about the school’s finances.

“There was this huge outrage from everybody, because we all felt like we knew what had caused the deficit,” said one participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of repercussions.

During his tenure, Boarman’s on-campus home was expanded — a project that cost more than $500,000, according to a spreadsheet listing vendor invoices from 2015 to 2018 and other records.

His luxury cars — a Jaguar and later a Mercedes — were priced at $59,000 and $55,000 respectively, according to documents obtained by The Post, appearing to exceed the $45,000 ­purchase-price limit in his contract.

His base salary started at $335,000 and grew markedly, records show. According to the most recent IRS records, for ­2017-2018, Boarman was paid $712,800, including a $100,000 bonus. The leader at nearby Landon School drew $482,200 that year, and the head at ­Georgetown Day $691,000, tax records show.

The distress among teachers and staff members led to a meeting with key trustees, where dozens of teachers and staff members described a loss of faith in Boarman, according to records and participants.

Mavrikes, the former trustee, agreed Boarman’s pay-cut ­request was a misstep but said that “people make mistakes.”

“He threw a trial balloon,” Mavrikes said, “and the balloon burst.”

But others saw the rupture as lasting. Later in October, a veteran educator and others wrote the board on behalf of a group of over 70 teachers and staff members alleging “a years-long pattern of financial recklessness, ethical breaches, and putting personal interests and goals ahead of community” by Boarman and his team.

“We write as one voice to underscore that the majority of Bullis staff has no trust and no confidence in Dr. Boarman’s administration,” the letter said.

The strife among teachers and staff members was a tipping point. The Bullis board voted 16 to 0, with one abstention, that it had cause to fire Boarman, according to confidential minutes of the meeting. Separately, it voted 17 to 0 not to extend his contract beyond its June 2020 end date.

But then it voted 16 to 1 that he should fulfill his remaining term, with certain conditions: Boarman would have to follow conduct guidelines, eliminate the positions of two of his other top aides, relinquish a sabbatical benefit and pay $30,000 a year from his salary for a staff professional development program.

Six weeks later, the school announced that Boarman’s contract was ending and “his legacy of positive change will endure.” Boarman said in a letter that his career in education would go on.

More than a dozen teachers and staff members sent letters to the board, expressing, as one put it, “great disappointment” at the decision to keep Boarman in place.

But Boarman finished his tenure and was feted in his final days this summer, with several students bidding warm goodbyes in a video. No tributes from teachers were included in the video.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.