With the approaching departure of Superintendent Diana Greene, a handful of Manatee County residents and school board members remarked on the importance of strength, experience and local knowledge when searching for an interim superintendent.
They found those qualities in Cynthia Saunders, who currently serves the school district as deputy superintendent of instructional services. All but one board member vouched for Saunders during a workshop on Tuesday, as did three public speakers. The board added to an agenda for its evening meeting, prompting a vote to move forward with the hiring process.
After the 4-1 vote, board attorney James Dye will now draft a contract and work with Chairman Scott Hopes to begin negotiations with Saunders. Board member Dave Miner cast the dissenting vote.
Miner said he was unhappy that district officials never advertised the position outside of a recent board meeting, nor did they conduct an interview of the possible candidates. He also questioned whether the district would now have to fill Saunders' current position.
Saunders traveled to Manatee with Greene when they both left leadership roles in the Marion County school district during 2013. Depending on who takes over as superintendent, Saunders could later follow Greene to Duval County, where she will soon serve as superintendent.
"I'm probably the one that's been part of the transition to where we are, and probably the most knowledgeable in our senior management to continue the same plan," Saunders said in an interview after the workshop.
The board chair said state law requires an interim to be in place by the time Greene leaves on July 1. The other board members agreed, adding that Saunders could use her institutional knowledge to maintain the district's current momentum.
"She's tough, and I think she's known for being tough, and I like that," said Gina Messenger, the board's vice chair. "I like any woman that's known for being tough."
Messenger said she joined Saunders for coffee and a discussion on Sunday night. She left confident that Saunders would keep the district on its current path while the board drafts a plan for future success.
If her contract is finalized, Saunders will take over as interim superintendent during a vital time for area schools. With the passage of a one-mill tax increase in March, the district is now advertising competitive salaries to attract new teachers, bus drivers and other personnel.
Board member John Colon also pointed to a press release that went out during the workshop. It said the board's credit rating went up two notches, from a BBB+ to an A, according to S&P Global Ratings.
He credited Greene for leading the district to its recent accomplishments, adding that Saunders shared similar skills and likely the ability to ensure continued success.
"They've been a team from the beginning," Colon said. "Although I'm losing the first pitcher on the team, I'd rather keep the relief pitcher than start from scratch."
Board member Charlie Kennedy said his support followed personal reflection and a flood of comments from the community. Though several people were considered, he said a consensus seemed to form around Saunders in the last two weeks.
"There have been many conversations formal, informal, in Publix, people yelling things as they drive by, unsolicited letters, you name it," Kennedy said.
Explaining his opposition, Miner reflected on the 2012 resignation of former Superintendent Tim McGonegal. An interim superintendent took over almost immediately, and the school board appointed a different interim about one month later. Miner felt the process was too rushed.
Along with Saunders, the board named two possible candidates on Tuesday: Doug Wagner, executive director of adult, career and technical education for the district; and Susan Agruso, chair of the district's voluntary Audit Committee and a former superintendent in New York.
Miner pointed to Agruso as the appropriate candidate for interim superintendent.
"None of the other candidates have that experience sharing as a volunteer on the Audit Committee, serving as the superintendent, being someone who has credibility in this community for calling it the way it is," Miner said.
Regardless, Saunders is likely to serve as the next interim superintendent. The remaining question is whether she can apply to serve as superintendent in the future.
To the agreement of Messenger and Kennedy, Greene said at a recent meeting that interim superintendents should not be allowed to apply for the superintendent position. Miner agreed at Tuesday's meeting.
"People who otherwise might apply would perceive that if someone is there on an interim basis and could be the superintendent, they've probably got it locked up, and I'm not even going to waste the postage to even send in a resume," he said.
It might be better for the board to keep its options open, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. She attended Tuesday's meeting to answer questions. She also said it's uncommon for a school district to advertise an open superintendent position, referring to one of Miner's concerns.
Until the board decides on who is allowed to apply, Saunders said she will focus on the present, making sure the district has a smooth transition into the new school year.
"I try not to think that far down the line, and I know there's been some conversations about it, but really my job is to make sure we continue on the path that we are on," she said.