Education

When will the school district find its next superintendent? It could be lengthy process

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders listens to recommendations by Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. The board discussed a search for its permanent superintendent on Tuesday evening.
Superintendent Cynthia Saunders listens to recommendations by Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. The board discussed a search for its permanent superintendent on Tuesday evening. gsabella@bradenton.com

The search for Manatee County’s next school superintendent could take more than a year.

Cynthia Saunders, previously the deputy superintendent of instructional services, took the reins after Diana Greene left to head Duval County schools in July.

Saunders agreed to a short-term contract, and the school board discussed plans for finding a permanent superintendent during its meeting on Tuesday evening.

Manatee, a district that maintained its B grade for the last two years, has the ability to entice a quality candidate, said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

She said candidates are attracted to districts that sit on Florida’s scenic coast. Messina also pointed to the district’s rising fund balance and improved bond ratings, along with the voter-approved increase on property taxes and the extension of a half-cent sales tax.

“All of those indicate trust by your community in Florida and in the district,” she said.

Messina also recommended the board be decisive in its actions. She said board members should demonstrate the ability to make decisions and support its leaders.

Good candidates won’t move across the state or the country if they lack confidence in the school district.

“As much as you’re interviewing them, they’re also interviewing you,” Messina said.

William Vogel, a consultant with the Florida School Boards Association Superintendent Search Services, stood alongside Messina on Tuesday evening. They said it takes about one year to develop a strategic plan for the district’s future, and another six months to search for viable candidates.

The process typically involves a set timeline, input from the community, six weeks of advertising and a thorough vetting process.

A strategic plan was at the center of Tuesday’s conversation. Specifically, whether the board should develop a plan before or after it hires a new superintendent.

Scott Hopes, the board chair, has long been a proponent of building a plan before the search. The plan, he said, would help Manatee better understand what qualities are needed in the next superintendent.

“It will bring the community and the board together with a common direction and common goals,” Hopes said.

Conversely, board member Charlie Kennedy felt the district should develop its strategic plan with help from the next superintendent.

Kennedy outlined two options: conduct a nationwide search and risk losing Saunders, who could leave for a permanent job during Manatee’s hunt for applicants. Or the board could reverse a previous decision that barred Saunders from becoming the district’s longterm superintendent.

“Ms. Saunders shall not be entitled to apply for or accept appointment as the new Superintendent,” according to a contract approved by the board in June.

If she were to apply for the job, other applicants could be deterred from submitting their own applications. But the district could find its next superintendent by June if it forgoes the strategic plan, or even sooner if the board reverses its decision on Saunders’ contract, Kennedy said.

“I think we have the best person in place right now,” said board member John Colon, pointing to Saunders.

Other board members expressed the importance of being decisive, not hasty.

The conversation may continue when the board convenes on Dec. 11, about one month after its reorganization meeting on Nov. 20. James Golden, a practicing minister and attorney, will join the board after his victory in the primary elections, when he defeated Colon.

With its new member seated, the board can start planning its search for a new superintendent.

Messina, director of the school board association, said leading a school district is no easy task, and that finding a quality superintendent is equally difficult.

“It’s truly an impossible job — God bless you,” she said. “I don’t know why anybody would do it. It’s becoming more and more difficult, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find quality candidates.”

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