By Nina Deerfield and Rebecca Nutile
Public education advocates around the country are taking a closer look at charter schools, their finances, their admission and expulsion policies, as well as their questionable academic results. These schools, while privately run, receive millions of taxpayer dollars annually, yet oversight is difficult because charter schools are exempt from much of the Education Code that governs traditional public schools.
Public dollars with little public oversight have created environments in which irregularities and questionable practices–both academic and financial—are thriving. At Alianza North County, we’re taking a closer look at these taxpayer-funded schools in Escondido. One such unusual practice is occurring at the city’s most popular and controversial charter school.
It is hard to imagine a publicly-elected school board of a public school district authorizing the payment of one individual’s salary through a different organization than the rest of the staff and faculty. Yet that is what appears to be happening at Escondido Charter High School.
While we are not making any claims about legality of these policies and procedures, we believe there is cause for concern. The Times of San Diego has reported that CalStrs is reviewing the complaint filed by the authors of the article. We are not pension or accounting experts which is why, as citizens and taxpayers, we passed along our concerns to CalStrs. It is up to CalStrs to determine whether this is another charter school loophole or if there is indeed a violation of CalStrs post-retirement earnings policy. We are simply shining light on the concern.
Retirement with six figure pension + six figure salary
Dennis Snyder, Executive Director of Escondido’s most controversial group of charter schools, retired from Escondido Charter High School in 2007. The school was the last named employer of his long career while contributing to the CalStrs pension fund.
According to data retrieved via Transparent California Link, he has been collecting his full pension since 2007 and is also paid a six-figure salary through the charter schools, but not exactly through the charter schools. He is paid through the Heritage American Foundation. Most likely few people know of his retirement, because by all appearances, Mr. Snyder has continued to work for his schools in the same capacity after his retirement that he did prior to it.
In 2007, the year of his retirement, tax documents show the official source of his salary changing from Escondido Charter High School to The American Heritage Education Foundation, a non-profit entity established by Snyder that raises funds for his schools. According to IRS 990 forms, since 2007, Snyder has been the foundation’s sole full-time employee.
In 2012, the salary he claimed was $104,000 for 40 hours of work per week – specifically for The American Heritage Education Foundation with no salary claimed through the schools. All other teachers and administrators of the charter schools receive salaries as employees of the schools.
Since retiring, Mr. Snyder continues to be the face and the voice of his schools and is usually named as Executive Director, just as he was before his 2007 retirement. In recent years, as Executive Director, he has opened two new schools and it is rumored they are planning to expand. There have been closed-door negotiations at Escondido City Hall about acquiring city-owned land at Mountain View Park but the status of this negotiation is unknown.
One of the Highest Teacher Pensions in the State, Top Three in Escondido Unified High School District
According to Transparent California, Snyder will collect a pension of over $116,000 this year through CalStrs Retirement Fund. The amount has increased a few thousand dollars per year since 2007, but has always been over $100,000 per year, making his pension one of the top 6000 or so for retired educators in the entire state of California. In the Escondido Union High School District, only two retired employees collect a higher pension than Snyder, one being a retired superintendent for the Escondido Union High School District.
CalStrs Limitations on Post-Retirement Wages
One logical reason a retired educator might not want to be paid directly by a publicly-funded school is that CalStrs places a $40,100 limit on post-retirement earnings for retirees employed in a public school (or a CalStrs contributing charter school).
Mr. Snyder’s salary via the American Heritage Education Foundation is 2 ½ times that amount. Because there is no salary paid directly from the school, a full pension seemingly could be collected. In a traditional public school, it would be highly unlikely a public school administrator/educator could retire from his/her position, claim full pension benefits through CalStrs, yet still remain in the same position receiving a salary well beyond the limit of $40,100.
Charter schools are notorious for claiming to be “public” when seeking funds, but “private” when they are asked to be accountable. Charter schools are allowed to be less transparent and are not held to the same standards as public schools when it comes to contractor bids, accounting transparency and all sorts of other policies than schools that are directly governed by a publicly-elected board.
Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at all the charter schools in Escondido. As public education advocate Diane Ravitch has said, “Charter-school people keep saying, “We’re public schools, we’re public schools!” Well, no, they’re not public schools. They can pick and choose their students, and they can kick out students that public schools can’t kick out. Charter schools are privately managed, many of them are not accountable or transparent, and they’re allowed to do things that public schools could never do. For instance, they can say, “We may be using public funds, but you have no right to audit our books.”
Public dollars need public oversight. It is time for thorough and effective oversight of Escondido’s charter schools.
Nina Deerfield is a Naturopathic Physician, Martial Arts Master, Publisher of Alianza North County and a political activist.
Rebecca Nutile is a resident of Escondido. She is a public education advocate and the parent of three young children.