Manatee school board to consider long-term contract for interim superintendent

The school board will soon decide whether to offer interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders a long-term agreement, but the board must grapple with a provision in her contract.

“Ms. Saunders shall not be entitled to apply for or accept appointment as the new Superintendent,” it states.

Board members will discuss a new contract at Tuesday’s workshop, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W., and a decision could be finalized at the evening board meeting.

Tuesday’s draft contract includes a section to waive the provision, allowing Saunders to serve as superintendent until June 30, 2022.

But how did the provision make its way into Saunders’ original contract?

Former superintendent Diana Greene recommended the stipulation at a board workshop on May 22.

“It was actually Mr. Miner’s suggestion three years ago,” she said at the time. “That whoever you put in as interim, they can’t apply for the permanent position.”

She was referring to the 2015 retirement of Rick Mills, who served as superintendent for about two years. The board appointed Don Hall, then the deputy superintendent of operations, as the interim superintendent.

He was barred from applying for the permanent position, because allowing an interim to accept the permanent role could discourage other qualified candidates from applying.

Regardless, the board later decided to forgo a national search and hire from within, offering Greene a one-year contract and then a four-year extension.

Greene’s contract ran through June 30, 2020, but she broke from the agreement to become superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, starting July 1 of this year.

Her departure was clear by late May. Teachers were leaving for summer vacation, district employees were recruiting for a new school year and the district was months away from launching a massive software project.

Pressed for time, the school board focused on filling the vacancy at its June 12 workshop. Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, joined the conversation.

She recommended the board not restrict its options by adding a provision to the interim contract.

Messina also compared the interim position to a job interview, suggesting that Manatee could reverse course and hire the interim as a full-time superintendent.

“It is, for whatever length of time, the most insightful and information-gathering interview you will ever be able to conduct,” she said. “Many times, it makes perfect sense, as it did when you hired Dr. Greene, to move that person in.”

Board member Dave Miner disagreed. Miner felt the provision was necessary to avoid discouraging other applicants during a superintendent search, the same position he held three years ago.

Miner said he wanted to “cast a net and see what fish are out there.” He pointed to a transition in 2009, when Tim McGonegal replaced Roger Dearing as the superintendent.

McGonegal was an assistant superintendent before he accepted the top spot. He resigned three years later, shortly after the district revealed a $3.4 million deficit in its 2012-2013 budget.

“There wasn’t much of a search when he went to superintendent, so that’s a cautionary tale to me,” Miner said at the June workshop.

The school board was leaning toward Saunders, then the deputy superintendent of instruction, for the interim role. One question remained: could she apply for the long-term position?

Charlie Kennedy and Gina Messenger backed Miner’s suggestion at a workshop on June 26, but Scott Hopes and John Colon felt the contract provision was too restrictive.

The board was tasked with approving a draft contract for Saunders, and Miner presented his own version for their consideration, including a provision that barred Saunders from accepting the permanent job.

James Dye, the board attorney, said the provision carried no legal weight, as the board could simply amend its agreement and remove the clause at any time.

Hopes and Miner agreed his provision was purely symbolic, and they added it to Saunders’ final contract.

“We don’t handcuff future actions of the board,” Miner said at the time. “It’s good PR for getting applications.”

It seems there may be no applications or searches. At their workshop on Dec. 4, board members envisioned Saunders as the long-term superintendent.

Miner, now the board chair, reversed his stance and advocated for Saunders.

“As a board we put that clause into her contract, at my urging, because I wasn’t wanting us to be married to her,” Miner said, acknowledging his reversal.

Miner and Hopes fully backed the interim for Manatee’s next long-term superintendent. She knows the district’s inner workings, including the struggle to fix a troubled software project, they said.

Kennedy said he would support the board’s majority decision, though he preferred a national search, as did Messenger.

The board’s newest member, James Golden, supported the removal of Saunders’ contract provision, allowing her “the opportunity to apply for the permanent position.”

The board must now decide whether it still believes in the symbolic provision and the need for a search, or whether Saunders will serve as the permanent leader.

“It sounds more appealing politically to say we’re going to have a national search — intergalactic search — for the very best person to serve the children and parents,” Miner recently said.

“Are you ignoring the person on the front porch who could do the job, and are you going to lose that person?” he continued.

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