Original story of May 29, 2015:
At 73, Dennis Snyder says he works 10-14 hours a day on behalf of the foundation he started to support his charter schools, including Escondido Charter High School.
He retired as executive director of that public school in 2007 (which he founded in 1996) and collects an annual pension of $118,700.
But he also earns at least $104,500 a year from the American Heritage Education Foundation, according to the nonprofit’s tax records, and critics call that pay unethical and double-dipping.
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, heard the rumblings as well — when publishers of the liberal monthly newspaper Alianza North County reported the foundation pay in July 2014 via the CalSTRS online abuse-reporting form.
Last week and this, spokesmen for CalSTRS said Snyder’s pension status was being checked out.
“Mr. Snyder’s account is undergoing review by CalSTRS, which entails a review of his post-retirement income records,” said Ricardo Duran, one CalSTRS spokesman. “This is to ensure that his post-retirement income is being accurately reported. CalSTRS is reviewing income that may or may not meet the definition of post-retirement creditable service.”
Last week, another CalSTRS rep, Mike Sicilia, told Times of San Diego that “Mr. Snyder’s account is in our portfolio of hotline cases under review,” which has been referred to the Compensation Review Unit.
Sicilia says CalSTRS aims to review all retirees who receive benefit amounts above $100,000 a year, but notes: “It’s fair to say it is rare, since our caseload is in the low dozens” since less than 4 percent of the 240,000 retirees fall into that pay category.
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“Where we do find problems and overpayments, we send letters to the [retirees], reduce the award to the accurate amount, and recover overpayments from monthly checks at the rate of 5 percent per month, recovering full amounts in 20 months.”
Confusion over his title — executive director of the foundation — has led some to think he’s still working as executive director of the high school, Snyder said.“People call me a lot of things,” he said in an interview Wednesday at the 800-student charter school. “They call me superintendent. Some call me principal.” (His latest IRS filing calls him president of the foundation.)
Sheila Randle, the charter high school’s business manager, says it’s like his common nickname — “Coach” Snyder — even though he hasn’t coached football in years.
But Nina Deerfield of Alianza, whose associate Becky Nutile filed the report with CalSTRS, says she’s “thrilled” to hear of the review.
“I’m wondering if that [foundation pay] is legal or illegal,” Deerfield said. “That’s why I sent the information to them.”
Last week, when the Escondido Union High School District board renewed the high school’s charter through 2020 on a 5-0 vote, Snyder was listed in the agenda as representing the school in seeking the renewal.
Snyder says he spoke to Steve Boyle, district superintendent, and was told it was a mistake — that Snyder should have been listed as executive director of the foundation.
For his part, Boyle said: “Whether Mr. Snyder is taking a legal salary is really a matter for the State Teachers Retirement System to determine.”
More suspicious is Tom Gabriela, president of the Escondido Secondary Teachers Association (ESTA), which represents teachers at local traditional schools but not the charter school, whose staff is not unionized.
Times of San Diego informed Gabriela of the fact the foundation is paying Snyder — the only such person on the nonprofit’s payroll.
“By moral standards,” Gabriela said, Snyder is involved in education through the foundation. “So yes, he’s double-dipping.”
In an October 2013 U-T TV interview with Roger Hedgecock, Snyder said of his charter school teachers: “We’re all at-will employees, including myself.”
Gabriela also said Snyder — as a former ESTA member — gets an $8,000 a year payout from the medical trust set up for retirees — a lifetime benefit.
Snyder defends his receiving the annual $8,000 benefit as a trust “that I paid into. And I’m still paying into that.”
Snyder’s pension is based on his final annual salary — $110,928.96 — and 40-plus years of service plus “a maximum longevity bonus of $400 per month” for working more than 30 years, Duran said. “Finally, Mr. Snyder has received seven annual benefit adjustments (cost-of-living hikes) since his 2007 retirement.”
A much-honored coach who retired after 42 years in Escondido schools, Snyder accuses Deerfield and newspaper partner Marco López of “constantly writing articles and disinformation that nobody has ever bothered to ask me whether the [assertions] are true.”
“People are allowed to character-assassinate people or [do] hatchet jobs,” he said.
Snyder considers Deerfield’s claim an attack on an innocent retiree. “That’s exactly how I feel.”
But Snyder declined to explain what he does for his $104,500 foundation pay or detail its sources of revenue. He also declined to say what his foundation does for its beneficiary schools — from an office he keeps at Escondido Charter High School.
He insists, however, that “I have not collected any CalSTRS money from any other organization.”
Members of the American Heritage Charter Schools board of directors and the high school district’s governing board did not respond to requests for comment.
Emily Bertelli, media relations director of the California Charter Schools Association, wasn’t familiar with Snyder’s case but said “in general we would encourage charter schools and their employees to follow the rules associated with any retirement system like PERS and STRS.”
CalSTRS, the second-largest public pension fund in the country, allows its retirees to work but not make more than $40,173 as public-school educators.
Duran, the CalSTRS spokesman, said: “Our job is to check the records to determine if there is any validity to those assertions [on exceeding the limits]. That is where we are now. An investigation is considered only when evidence from the records emerges that corroborates the assertion. We’re not there and may not ever reach that point.”
Sicilia, the other spokesman, said: “There is no criminal penalty” for collecting too much money.
“If we find a member has intentionally misrepresented information for the purpose of evasion, we can collect up to 10 percent a month,” he said. “That’s very rare indeed.”
In a letter to county schools Superintendent Randolph Ward, Alianza’s Nutile said tax documents show Snyder “shifting his salary” from Escondido Charter High School to “the funding organization” American Heritage Education Foundation.
“Based on news articles and the school’s website, it is obvious there were no changes in the scope of his position as executive director of the charter schools upon retirement,” she wrote.
“He is well-known in the community and his name is virtually synonymous with the schools.”
On Thursday, responding to email, Snyder said: “I have no concerns about these issues. You should know that I spoke to another counselor at CalSTRS yesterday and she reinforced this since my AHEF salary does not come under CalSTRS.”
For now, Snyder is philosophical on what he considers an attack on his reputation.
“I’ve been down this road before, so that’s life,” he said. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
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