School superintendent could reach settlement in state investigation

Manatee County’s interim superintendent of schools will negotiate with the Florida Department of Education, which accused her of inflating graduation rates between 2014 and 2016.

The state gave Cynthia Saunders three weeks to rebut the allegations found in a Dec. 6 letter from Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who is set to retire in early January.

Saunders chose to negotiate a settlement agreement, DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said in an email.

A settlement would mean Saunders neither admits nor denies the allegations. If an agreement is not reached within 45 days, Saunders can dispute the allegations in a formal hearing, or she could accept the complaint and request an informal hearing, according to the Election of Rights.

“In a settlement agreement, you will accept certain conditions in order to resolve the case,” it states.

Employment attorney Erin Jackson responded to the allegations in 2017. According to her response, any wrongdoing was isolated to one school, where the issues were quickly resolved.

The school board is scheduled to discuss a long-term contract for Saunders at the Jan. 8 workshop, and a vote is slated for the Jan. 22 board meeting. If approved, she would receive an annual salary of $196,000 to serve as the superintendent until June 30, 2022.

While board member Scott Hopes and Chairman Dave Miner backed the approval on Dec. 11, the board unanimously chose to delay its vote after a lengthy debate. The board’s newest member, James Golden, said he would vote to approve the contract if nothing substantial happened by January.

Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair, questioned the length of Saunders’ draft contract, while board member Charlie Kennedy commented on the DOE investigation.

He said all district employees, “from the superintendent to a part-time transportation aide,” are presumed innocent while accusations are unresolved.

“And to Dr. Hopes’ point, I have no doubt this will come back as unfounded,” Kennedy said at the meeting.

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Saunders joined the district as its executive director of secondary education in 2013. She became the deputy superintendent of instructional services in 2015, and the interim superintendent in late June, when Diana Greene left to head Duval County Public Schools.

According to the state, Saunders directed employees to code departing high school students as “withdrawn to home education,” though some had no intention of being home schooled. In the 2014-2015 school year, only six of the 121 withdrawn students were coded properly.

The improper coding led Manatee’s graduation rate to be “incorrectly reflected as above average for the state,” the DOE said in its complaint.

Florida’s education commissioner said she found probable cause to justify sanctions against Saunders’ educator certificate. She faces anything from a reprimand to the revocation of her certificate.

When reached for comment on Friday, Saunders referred to a previous statement by district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum.

In his prepared statement on Dec. 11, Teitelbaum said coding was primarily an issue at Horizons Academy, an alternative education program for struggling students, and that Saunders immediately called for an audit after learning of the accusations in 2016.

“Admittedly, the administration at the school was not properly interviewing parents about student withdrawal options or having them fill out proper forms,” he wrote. “That was the extent of the processing error and it was corrected.”

More than 80 percent of students coded for home education were from Horizons in the 2014-2015 school year, according to the response from an attorney at Johnson Jackson LLC, sent to the DOE on Oct. 30, 2017.

Teitelbaum declined to comment further on Friday.

“Ms. Saunders will preserve her outstanding reputation that she has established after 28 years of service to public education,” he wrote in early December.