Why did school board delay review of proposed new contract for Superintendent Saunders?

The school board canceled its review of Superintendent Cynthia Saunders’ possible contract extension, originally scheduled for Tuesday’s board workshop.

Board member Scott Hopes boarded an airplane to Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon. Hopes, appointed to the school board by Gov. Rick Scott in July 2017, will attend the governor’s swearing-in as a U.S. senator, followed by the Florida Sunshine Ball on Tuesday evening.

With one of five board members absent, Chairman Dave Miner removed the contract discussion from Tuesday’s workshop agenda. He could not be reached for comment on Monday morning.

The board, with four of five members present, discussed a new date at Tuesday’s regular meeting. They agreed to discuss Saunders’ contract at the afternoon workshop on Feb. 12, and to vote on the draft agreement that evening.

At the board meeting on Dec. 11, Miner seconded a motion by Hopes to approve a long-term contract for Saunders, who became interim superintendent with the departure of former Superintendent Diana Green about six months ago.

The contract was up for a vote last month, just days after the Florida Department of Education accused Saunders of inflating graduation rates between 2014 and 2016, when she served as the executive director of secondary schools and later as the deputy superintendent of instruction.

Her troubles began with an inquiry by the Florida Department of Education and Office of the Inspector General in October 2016, and the state DOE announced findings against Saunders on Dec. 6.

Saunders recently entered a 45-day negotiation period, which could end with a settlement or a debate within the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings.

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After a lengthy debate at the last meeting, school board members voted unanimously to postpone Hopes’ motion on the contract approval. The board could move forward with its vote on Jan. 22, or the board could reschedule its discussion and further postpone the vote.

If approved, the contract would run through June 30, 2022, starting with a yearly salary of $196,000. It would also remove a provision from Saunders’ current agreement that barred her from accepting the permanent role.

The board voted 4-1 to approve Saunders’ interim contract, including the restriction, in late June.

Several board members felt the provision would encourage other applicants during a nationwide search for the next superintendent, but at least two members — Hopes and Miner — have shifted focus to hiring Saunders. Both cited the need for stability, along with Saunders’ performance over the past six months.

Anxiety fueled the rush to hire Saunders, especially after the board’s Dec. 4 workshop. Bill Vogel, a consultant with the Florida School Boards Association, advised the board that Saunders had a standing offer with Duval County Public Schools, a district led by Manatee’s former superintendent.

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Ongoing allegations put a stop to the school board’s urgency, Hopes said on Monday. Saunders’ contract runs through June 30, 2019, and Hopes believes the interim superintendent will remain with Manatee as the state investigation runs its course.

The district, he said, needs a leader to open three new schools in August 2019, and to fill several key vacancies: deputy superintendent of instruction, chief information officer and director of business systems, among others.

Hopes will observe Gov. Scott’s transition to the U.S. Senate on the same day that Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is scheduled to retire, making way for the new commissioner, former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Hopes said he worked with Corcoran in various capacities over the past two decades, and he plans to meet with Corcoran to discuss the investigation of Manatee’s superintendent.

Both men previously worked as consulatants for Solantic Corp., a chain of urgenct care centers previously owned by Gov. Scott, according to Hopes.

“I want to do my homework and obtain firsthand knowledge of the complaint, and why action was only taken against one individual,” Hopes said.