Once a watchdog, deputy superintendent retires amid inquiry by Manatee schools

Ronald Dean Ciranna worked his way from a retail employee to a school administrator who fought corruption in three districts between Michigan and Florida.

Ciranna, 67, recently found himself on the wrong side of a district investigation, placed on leave as the district and state auditors review problems with a new software system that launched this past summer.

The School Board of Manatee County will decide whether to approve his retirement on Tuesday. Ciranna is expected to leave the district on Dec. 3 — two years, two months and 19 days after he started as the deputy superintendent of business services and operations.

Before he was a district administrator, Ciranna was a young man with dreams of becoming a racer. He pushed a Kawasaki motorcycle to speeds of 150 mph in remote areas of Michigan, according to a 2009 article by The Ledger, a newspaper in Lakeland, Florida.

In last year’s interview with NextGen Family Magazine, a publication by the Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County, Ciranna said he attended several racing schools.

But Ciranna retired his need for speed to make way for a career in education, the article said. Speaking as Manatee’s newest deputy superintendent, he outlined priorities for the next five years.

“Also, an exciting venture on the agenda, is bringing our technology into what I call the ‘Flintstone to Jetson era.’ We will be implementing the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) project. This will tie all of our infrastructure together so that all of the software programs can talk to each other,” he was quoted as saying.

It was the ERP project that ultimately led to Ciranna’s downfall. The business management software was meant to replace an archaic system, but it recently launched more than a year behind schedule and at least $10 million over budget.

At least $107,000 was spent without school board approval, and investigations are ongoing in the School District of Manatee County and the Florida Auditor General’s office.

Ciranna is the subject of an investigation by his own district, a departure from the fruitful career that led him to aid federal authorities in past corruption cases.

He could not be reached for comment.

Embezzlement in Michigan

As a 22-year-old in Michigan, Ciranna worked as a department manager and special assistant at a Meijer supercenter, according to the earliest entry on his resume. He took the job in August 1973, soon after graduating from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in communications.

He left the company after one year, simultaneously working as a substitute teacher and attending graduate school at Michigan State University. He left in 1977 with a master’s degree from the MSU College of Education.

More than a decade later, he earned a Juris Doctor degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan.

He mainly earned B’s and C’s in classes that ranged from taxation to law office management, but he earned an A grade in a course on education law. He remains in good standing with the State Bar of Michigan.

The time between his first degree and his third were filled with jobs as a teacher, an admissions director and a salesman at Williams Auto World.

Ciranna eventually earned his stripes and landed several jobs as an assistant superintendent. Then, in September 2000, he became the superintendent of East Detroit Public Schools. He was immediately confronted with subpoenas from the FBI.

The agency investigated “allegations that millions of dollars were misspent or embezzled under the $28 million bond program that started in 1995,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

According to his resume, Ciranna worked closely with the FBI and other agencies to close “several lawsuits regarding embezzlement charges and cost overruns from previous bond work involving three former Board of Education members and various high level District Office administrators.”

He left the district less than four years later, working for six months as the chief human resource officer for a district in Kansas City, Mo., and then returning to Michigan for another leadership role.

Willow Run Community Schools hired Ciranna as its director of human resources in 2004. He soon took part in internal and external investigations with the FBI that “resulted in charges against the former superintendent,” according to Ciranna’s resume.

Local media outlets reported that former superintendent Douglas Benit later pleaded guilty to mail and bank fraud in connection with his actions in a previous school district. It’s unclear if Ciranna’s investigation was related to the conviction.

“From his past experience, Ron (Ciranna) was no stranger to what we were going through,” said Claudette Braxton, a Willow Run administrator, in a letter of recommendation she wrote years later.

“He helped us tackle the tough issues head on.”

Ciranna replaced Benit in 2005, maintaining his oversight of HR as he took on the role of interim superintendent.

He left about two years later, after the school board blamed him and his predecessor for the district’s financial woes. An article on MLive, a local news website, said Ciranna defended his work.

“Eventually, lacking board support, Ciranna found a job in Florida,” the article states.

A ‘personal toll’

Ciranna faced his third case of corruption when he joined Polk County Public Schools as its assistant superintendent of human resource services in 2007.

He “initiated an internal investigation with the FBI,” according to this resume, leading to discoveries of “fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, and numerous violations of School Board Policies and Guidelines.”

A judge sentenced Robert Williams, the former assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, to two years in federal prison after he awarded contracts in return for vacations, personal construction projects and other kickbacks, according to a 2012 news release from the FBI.

Donna Wingard, a Polk administrator, later vouched for Ciranna in a letter of recommendation.

She said his law degree “ brings a dimension and perspective which manifests itself in not only a deep appreciation and respect of the law, but also in a higher level of understanding of the meaning of accountability, equity and fairness.”

An FBI investigation was one of many heated issues Ciranna faced in Polk County. He faced backlash during negotiations with the Polk Education Association, and during his efforts to collect money from dozens of teachers who were overpaid.

He handled the situations well, but not always with grace, according to his yearly evaluations.

“There is a perception that how you explain issues, whether in a small or large group, is not presented in a ‘people friendly’ manner,” one comment states. “I believe this is because administrators and others do not know you except when you are presenting changes to the status quo or a new procedure that affects them negatively. Your written communication is quite precise and thorough.”

“Your work in handling the FBI investigation has been appreciated,” another said. “You are thorough in tackling issues. Just remember to keep the ‘person’ in personnel.”

Ciranna’s evaluations paint the picture of a man who aimed to transform district operations and weed out corrupt staff. He struggled to navigate complex politics and decades of longstanding business traditions.

“It has all taken a personal toll on my personal life,” Ciranna said in a 2010 evaluation. “I need to find that balance again.”

Problems with ERP

Ciranna later spent about six years working for Pinellas County Schools, free of high-profile investigations or intense media scrutiny.

He started in November 2010 as assistant superintendent of HR. Despite years of positive evaluations and at least one salary increase, Ciranna later moved to a lower paying role as director of risk management and insurance.

He then resigned in September 2016, citing a “wonderful opportunity for career advancement.”

Manatee’s former superintendent, Diana Greene, hired Ciranna to serve as a deputy superintendent in 2016. He filled the position left vacant after Don Hall’s resignation.

Ciranna and two others are now under investigation by the school district. He is joined by Rob Malloy, the district’s chief information technology officer; and Angie Oxley, the ERP project manager.

Though it’s unlikely he ever tackled an implementation like the one in Manatee, Ciranna oversaw smaller software projects in Pinellas. According to his resume, he upgraded a system for hiring, and he installed a better program for substitute employees.

He was no stranger to pressure. Ciranna oversaw a staff of 70 employees in Pinellas, and he oversaw half a dozen departments for Willow Run Community Schools.

Now, however, is leaving Manatee to struggle with a faulty business management system and a dysfunctional HR department, which recently failed to advertise vacant positions. Perhaps, as theorized by school board Chairman Scott Hopes, the deputy superintendent was given too much oversight authority.

As head of the Division of Business Services and Operations, he oversaw more than a dozen departments and projects, including human resources, risk management, benefits, wellness, information technology, maintenance and operations, construction services, food services, transportation and vehicle maintenance, finance, budget and payroll.

Details are scarce, as the school district is withholding its findings during the ongoing review of Ciranna and two other employees.

In the meantime, Doug Wagner is serving as the deputy superintendent of business services and operations. He is also the executive director of adult, career and technical education. Another deputy spot is still vacant after Cynthia Saunders left the position to serve as superintendent.

A lot changed after Ciranna announced the supposed completion of his ERP project in June, congratulating district staff at a school board meeting.

“They are committed, they are dedicated, and what has impressed me is they’ve taken on this project with very little oversight from us,” he said.