Superintendent Saunders ordered policy linked to inflated graduation rates, state says

The Florida Department of Education accused Manatee County’s interim superintendent of inflating the district’s graduation rate, and the ensuing investigation revealed that both Cynthia Saunders and her predecessor knew of a process that eventually led to the allegations.

Manatee schools were coding their struggling high school seniors as “withdrawn to home education” when they left to pursue a GED, a process implemented by Saunders after she joined the district as its executive director of secondary schools in 2013.

The revelation followed inquiries by the state DOE and Office of the Inspector General. In August 2017, investigators asked Saunders whether she implemented the coding process.

“Yes I did. I was over the high schools. That was the process and the method I was trained for, so that was the method I communicated to the high school principals,” the report states, quoting Saunders.

Students who enroll in a home-school program should be coded separately from students who withdraw to pursue their GED, and Manatee’s process caused its graduation rate to spike in past years.

But Saunders and her predecessor, former Superintendent Diana Greene, argued that Manatee was emulating the system in Marion County schools, where they previously worked.

Marion’s school district faced similar allegations in July 2016, according to the inspector general’s report.

“It is highly unfair that someone decides just because I worked in Marion County that I’m somehow connected,” the report states, quoting Greene.

“Ms. Greene stated Manatee County has a 9% drop out rate, and if they were trying to manipulate home education numbers to boost graduation rates, they were doing a poor job,” the report continues.

Employment attorney Erin Jackson argued in 2017 that Saunders was unaware of the system’s faults, and that all decisions were backed by good intentions.

“An intent to falsely inflate graduation rates should not be confused with a school district’s intent to provide students with as many options as possible to achieve educational success and hopefully pursue post-secondary education,” her report states.

Jackson’s report, echoed by district attorney Mitchell Teitelbuam in a recent statement, said there was no benefit to the district’s overall grade or its finances.

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The improper coding would, however, affect the district’s statewide ranking, along with the graduation rate at several local schools.

If students were properly coded in the 2014-2015 school year, the graduation rates would be lower at six local high schools: Bayshore, Lakewood Ranch, Manatee, Palmetto, Southeast and Braden River, the state reported.

The decrease ranged from 1.4 to 6.2 percent points at each school. Manatee’s overall graduation rate would drop from 77.9 percent to 75.4 percent, and its statewide graduation rank would decrease from No. 35 to No. 49 in the 2014-2015 school year.

Manatee saw a drastic increase in students coded for home education between 2012 to 2016:

  • 2012-2013 school year: 16 students withdrawn to home education.
  • 2013-2014 school year: 15 senior withdrawn to home education.
  • 2014-2015 school year: 121 seniors withdrawn to home education.
  • 2015-2016 school year: 169 seniors withdrawn to home education.

Investigators noted an increase of more than 700 percent between 2014 to 2015. The number of students coded for home-school in 2014-2015 was three times the state average, and more than five times the average in 2015-2016, according to the inspector general’s report.

State investigators felt the system was a deliberate attempt to improve graduation rates, and that parents were often uninformed about the documents they were signing.

“When the parents received a notice to produce a student’s portfolio as part of a yearly audit, some stated they never intended to homeschool their child,” the DOE said in its report. “Parents were angry at being misled and not understanding the process and responsibilities of Home Education.”

Employment attorney Jackson responded to the DOE in 2017, noting that Saunders was first made aware of potential issues during the state’s investigation. Saunders made a similar statement to investigators.

“Ms. Saunders stated that no staff members voiced concerns over homeschool and GED coding of students,” the report states.

Quoting the district’s senior report specialist, Paula Nigrelli, the state contradicted Saunders’ statement. Nigrelli apparently brought concerns to Saunders and Danny Lundeen, the supervisor of student demographics, projections and assignment.

“Ms. Nigrelli stated that she shared her concerns with Mr. Lundeen and Ms. Saunders, and they explained that their interpretation of the statute was correct and needed to be followed.”

Saunders also responded to an employee’s concerns in an email dated Nov. 9, 2016, about one month after the district first learned of the state probe, according to investigators.

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The district’s choice program specialist, Alicia Carrillo, reportedly told Saunders the district had never signed students up for home school if they were pursuing a GED in the past.

“She further stated that she questioned Ms. Saunders and asked her to provide documentation in statute to support coding students as home schooled,” the report said.

“Ms. Saunders referenced no specific statute, administrative code, or policy to support her assertion that students pursuing their GED should be coded as withdrawn to home education,” it continues.

According to her attorney, Saunders called for an audit directly after she learned of the state’s concerns. The state’s education department credits the inspector general for recommending an audit.

Regardless, the findings were clear: more than 80 percent of students withdrawn to home-school in 2014-2015 were from Horizons Academy, an alternative program for at-risk students. The district has since blamed Horizons for causing Manatee’s coding woes.

“Saunders stated that the audit was a blessing, and brought some issues to the forefront,” according to the inspector general’s report.

Manatee’s district attorney said Horizons failed to gather parental consent before enrolling students in home education. The issue “was isolated to Horizons Academy,” Teitelbaum said in his recent statement, adding that Saunders “immediately put corrective actions and safeguards in place.”

The large concentration of drop-outs at Horizons was no surprise to some employees. Andrea Dawsey, the school’s registrar, told investigators the district “puts a lot of pressure on Horizons to boost graduation rates because they are considered a school with troubled students known to have a high number of dropouts,” investigators reported.

“Ms. Dawsey stated that parents would sign their kids up for home education, but when responding to the OIG request she found that the student had moved to another school, another county, or dropped out completely,” the report continues.

Horizon’s former principal, James Hird, described the students as “chronic disrupters and those who create safety concerns.”

“Mr. Hird stated that Horizon students fit the profile of the students that are more likely to withdraw to home education, obtain their GED, or dropout of school completely,” investigators reported.

Hird was “not aware of any directive by administration to withdraw students into home education that should be dropouts or GED students,” the report states.

The investigation of Saunders started in 2016 before it came to a head early last month, days before the school board was scheduled to vote on a long-term contract. If approved, the agreement would make Saunders the superintendent until 2022.

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On Dec. 6, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart sent a letter to Saunders, accusing her of violating two state statutes and five administrative codes. The letter said she “intentionally distorted or misrepresented facts,” and that Saunders “used coercive means” to influence staff.

Some felt the timing of Stewart’s complaint and the contract vote was suspicious, especially when the accusations first surfaced more than two years ago.

The case against Saunders was slowly progressing in the background since October 2016, when the education commissioner directed the inspector general’s office to conduct an investigation. The office closed its inquiry and substantiated the allegations in November 2017.

The inspector’s office then forwarded its report to Professional Practice Services, a department in the DOE, which conducted its own investigation.

Saunders was notified of the PPS investigation on Jan. 23. The inquiry concluded after four months, and Saunders responded to the allegations on June 18 — less than two weeks before she was sworn-in as Manatee’s interim superintendent.

It’s clear the district was improperly coding GED candidates as home-school students, but Saunders’ intentions are up for debate.

Most recently, Saunders opted to negotiate a settlement with the state, a process that could take up to 45 days. If they fail to reach an agreement, both parties may argue their cases in a formal hearing.

Manatee’s school board is scheduled to discuss Saunders’ draft contract on Tuesday, and a vote is slated for Jan. 22.