Manatee School Board may extend Superintendent Saunders’ contract

Watch a summary of Manatee’s search for a long-term superintendent

Bill Vogel, a consultant for the Florida School Boards Association, explains the school board workshop that took place on Tuesday.
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Bill Vogel, a consultant for the Florida School Boards Association, explains the school board workshop that took place on Tuesday.

Manatee County School Board Chairman Dave Miner and interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders will negotiate an extended contract to keep Saunders as head of the school district, officials said Tuesday.

Miner, Saunders and board attorney James Dye will draft the agreement, which could be ready for the board’s consideration by Dec. 11.

Miner, who was recently elected board chairman, said he hopes to discuss the contract, make needed changes and then vote on the agreement at next week’s board meeting.

Nothing is final without a majority vote of the five-member board.

Saunders accepted the interim position after former Superintendent Diana Greene left to head Duval County schools in July. The board voted 4-1 to accept Saunders’ contract in late June, including a provision that barred her from accepting the permanent position.

Her current contract runs through June 30, 2019, but that could soon change. The provision would be easily overturned with the approval of a new agreement, and at least two board members are invested in the idea.

Miner and Scott Hopes said they felt Saunders proved her abilities over the past five months.

“It could go before the board that evening, and by Christmas we would have this whole situation behind us,” Miner said.

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Hopes pointed to the need for stability and immediate action. Three schools are opening in August, and the district is tasked with filling an estimated 300 positions.

The district is also facing a troubled software project that ballooned in cost and size, affecting all facets of the district. If it plans to hire a new superintendent, Hopes said, the district must first stabilize before it can attract a quality candidate.

“The fact of the matter is, we have a high-risk situation for any potential CEO to come in,” Hopes said.

Some board members felt it was too early to dismiss a national search. Charlie Kennedy said the district should offer Saunders a raise and a six-month extension on her contract.

The extension would allow Saunders to address ongoing matters while the board decides whether to conduct a national search.

Kennedy described the superintendent as responsive and trustworthy. However, he was not in favor of granting Saunders a three-year contract, the usual agreement for new superintendents.

“While I don’t support that idea ... I do want to be very clear that, whatever this board decides, I will jump in with two feet behind that decision,” Kennedy said.

His concerns were shared by Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair. She felt Saunders should stay during a critical time in the district, making way for a national search down the road.

Messenger was less sure about removing the provision that barred Saunders’ from accepting the permanent position. If the board were to conduct a search, allowing the superintendent to apply for a permanent position could discourage would-be candidates.

Messenger said she would give the issue careful consideration before next week’s meeting.

And the board’s newest member, James Golden, took a more neutral stance.

“First off, I don’t have any opinion at all about a national search or about the work Mrs. Saunders has done up to this point in time,” Golden said.

After hearing from other members, Golden suggested removing the clause from Saunders’ contract, encouraging her to stay in the position — at least for now — and allowing for the possibility of a search.

“What I’m looking is for an extension of the interim contract ... that allows her the opportunity to apply for the permanent position,” Golden said.

Regardless of their final stance, the board should focus on coming to a swift decision, said Bill Vogel, a consultant with the Florida School Boards Association.

Speaking at Tuesday’s meeting, Vogel said the district is at risk of losing Saunders and having to find another interim. He said the superintendent already has a job opportunity in Duval County, and that she’s likely to find work in several districts throughout the state.

“The district at this looking for stability, and an interim creates instability,” he said.

Cynthia Saunders, formerly the deputy superintendent of instructional services, became the superintendent of Manatee County schools on Thursday afternoon.