Amid accusations against superintendent, school board delays vote on new contract

Cynthia Saunders, interim superintendent for the School District of Manatee County, is accused of abusing her power and inflating graduation rates, according to a notice from the Florida Department of Education.

In a letter dated Dec. 6, Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said she found probable cause to justify sanctions against Saunders’ educator certificate, citing alleged misconduct between 2014 and 2016.

Saunders was named interim superintendent after Diana Greene left to become superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in late June.

Accusations against Saunders came to light just before the school board’s meeting on Tuesday, when the board was scheduled to vote on a long-term superintendent contract. Approval of the contract would effectively remove “interim” from Saunders’ title, allowing her to lead the district until June 30, 2022.

Dave Miner, the board chair, seconded a motion by Scott Hopes to approve the contract. But at 11:11 p.m., after a lengthy debate, the board unanimously approved a follow-up motion to postpone the decision until Jan. 22.

The board will also hold a discussion at its workshop on Jan. 8. If approved, the contract would go into effect on March 1, including a salary of $196,000 per year.

Nearly a dozen public speakers, many of them district employees, spoke in favor of Saunders. Board member James Golden said he would ultimately vote for the contract if nothing changes by January, but he did not support an approval on Tuesday night.

“The five of us — as we like to say, as a board — have not had an opportunity to react or respond to input about this very major decision,” Golden said.

Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair, supported the extra deliberation.

“This is the biggest decision, I think, that we make,” Messenger said. “It impacts my children and it impacts all the kids in this community.”

Saunders referred questions about the DOE investigation to district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum.

In a written statement, Teitelbaum said the state’s action was based on “surmise and speculation,” and that Saunders would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

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Saunders “fraudulently inflated graduation rates for her district by instructing subordinate district employees to improperly code student withdrawals” between 2014 and 2016, according to Stewart’s letter.

After starting as the executive director of secondary education in 2013, Saunders became Manatee’s deputy superintendent of instruction in 2015.

She allegedly told her employees to code departing students as “withdrawn to home education,” though the families had no intention of switching to home school.

Of the 121 students who withdrew from school in the 2014-2015 school year, only six were properly coded, according to the letter. The decision caused Manatee’s graduation rate to be “incorrectly reflected as above average for the state.”

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The state accused Saunders of:

  • Personal conduct which seriously reduces effectiveness as an employee of the school board, in violation of Florida Statutes.
  • An offense against the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession, in violation of Florida Statutes.
  • Intentionally distorting or misrepresenting facts concerning an educational matter in direct or indirect public expression, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Using institutional privileges for personal gain or advantage, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Failing to maintain honesty in all professional dealings, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Using coercive means or promised special treatment to influence professional judgments of colleagues, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Submitting fraudulent information on a document in connection with professional activities, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.

“Penalties levied against you may include reprimand, fine, probation, restriction of the scope of practice, suspension not to exceed five years, revocation not to exceed ten years or the permanent revocation of your Educator Certificate,” the letter states.

Saunders now has the right to file an appeal. She can dispute the allegations in a formal hearing, “not dispute the allegations” in an informal hearing, negotiate a settlement agreement or surrender her certificates.

In his written statement, Teitelbaum said the state’s investigation was centered on bad practices at one school, and that Saunders immediately responded to the issue.

The state’s letter, Teitelbaum said, was misguided and inaccurate.

“The complaint against Superintendent Saunders — and that’s all it is at this time — is based upon surmise and speculation and lacks any evidentiary basis in either law or fact,” he wrote. “The District has thoroughly investigated it. It has taken DOE over two years just to get to this point.”

“Ms. Saunders will preserve her outstanding reputation that she has established after 28 years of service to public education,” Teitelbaum continued. “It is hopeful that this matter will come to an expedited conclusion.”

He said the district first disputed claims against Saunders in 2017, responding to similar findings outlined by the state in a draft report, which was dated Sept. 18, 2017.

A 15-page response, sent to the DOE by the law firm of Johnson Jackson LLC, said the conclusion was “invalid and without any basis.”

It said Saunders called for an audit upon learning of possible issues in 2016. More than 80 percent of students coded for home education were from Horizons Academy in the 2014-2015 school year, according to the response letter.

The number of Manatee County seniors “withdrawn to home school” dropped from 121 to 24 in one school year, the letter said.

“There was no gain to the District financially or otherwise based on Horizon’s failure to comply with these processes,” it states.

Speaking at Tuesday’s workshop, Hopes suggested approving Saunders’ long-term contract and, if need be, terminating the agreement with or without cause. He cited a need for predictability and progress in the district.

Both the district and Saunders would have a right to end the contract with 90 days notice, or the district could terminate its agreement with cause.

Several forms of misconduct fall under the definition of “cause,” including an act that brings “public disgrace upon the Superintendent or District,” according to Saunders’ draft contract.

Earlier in the day, Hopes said any allegations should be directed at the former superintendent.

“Diana Greene was in charge, not Cynthia Saunders,” Hopes said. “I have every expectation that she’s going to challenge it, and she’ll have her day in court.”

“I think the timing of it is quite curious,” he continued.

Board member Charlie Kennedy preferred to delay the contract approval, giving Saunders a chance to form her response, and allowing the community to submit feedback.

Kennedy, speaking at Tuesday’s workshop, pointed to the common expectation for district employees, from principals to bus drivers.

“If they had an official complaint lodged against them, which required response, I think that person’s supervisor would be pumping the brakes on them, too,” he said.