San Ysidro Unified School District has canceled the lifetime health benefits provided to former trustee Saundra “Sandy” Lopez, in response to NBC7 questions about the perk.
In 2010, the former school board member was sentenced to 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to federal wire fraud charges. She’s the only trustee in the district who ever qualified for the lifetime health benefit, but circumstances surrounding how, when and why she received it remain murky.
The San Ysidro governing board voted on July 16, 2012 to cap board member retiree health benefits at age 65. Before the July vote, the policy was unclear.
“Since our board policy is silent on whether the benefits are lifetime or end at 65, it was necessary for board direction on how to proceed. It has been decided that board member retiree benefits will end at 65. The retiree benefits for Saundra Lopez will be terminated effective immediately,” Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Dena Whittington wrote in an email statement.
Lopez, 68, was forced to resign from the board in June 2010 after she admitted to transferring $26,032 from the estate of a deceased neighbor to an account she falsely claimed was his. She served the district for 16 years, but in nonconsecutive terms with her first successful election dating back to the mid-1980’s.
She could not be reached for comment, but has returned from prison.
Taxpayers paid a total of $5,135.39 for health benefits for Lopez since she turned 65. District officials said Lopez did not receive district-funded health benefits while serving her 10-month prison stint, but refused to answer when and how it was reinstated.
Trustees Raquel Marquez and Jason Wells said they had no recollection of a board vote to reinstate Lopez as the school district’s sole receiver of lifetime benefits after she returned from prison.
Marquez said she was glad she was alerted to the spending by NBC7.
A state law allows for school trustees who are elected and serve their first term between 1981 and 1995 to qualify for post-retirement health care benefits, but allocating the lifetime benefits typically involves a board vote on the matter.
“This money going to (Lopez) for lifetime health benefits is just part of the problem,” said Carol Wallace, the teacher’s union president. “It’s just part of a big overspending picture.”
Teachers have been asked by the district to take a total of 12 furlough days over the next two school years, at an average cost of about 10 percent of their pay. They’ve only agreed to three furlough days during negotiations, according to Wallace.
Trustees earn a stipend of about $300 per meeting and health care benefits and a pension.