Superintendent Saunders defends herself amid allegations of wrongdoing. She’s not alone

Amid a flurry of allegations, media reports and threats against her educator certificate, Superintendent Cynthia Saunders spoke out at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The Florida Department of Education accused Saunders of inflating graduation rates by directing her staff to improperly code drop-out students between 2014 and 2016, when she worked as the executive director of secondary schools and, subsequently, as the deputy superintendent of instruction.

On Tuesday evening, Manatee County’s superintendent of schools addressed the Dec. 6 letter from Pam Stewart, then the state’s education commissioner. Saunders, who became the interim superintendent on July 1, was accused of violating two state statutes and five sections of Florida Administrative Code — a milestone in the case, which dates back to October 2016.

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“While I realize superintendents are open to intense scrutiny, I ask that you allow me to clear my reputation through the proper channels, not in the newspaper or on social media outlets — or in response to unsubstantiated accusations,” she said on Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.

Saunders recently entered negotiations with the state, which could end with a settlement or proceedings before the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings.

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Her existing contract runs through June, and the school board is considering a long-term contract that would run through June 30, 2022.

“That means I have a job to do, and I want you to know as superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, all my focus, energies and abilities will be aimed at moving this school district forward,” she said.

In her prepared statement, Saunders listed several priorities: preparing for upcoming exams, completing a troubled software project and hiring employees to support the opening of three new schools in August 2019.

The statement came just days after several op-eds appeared in area newspapers, faulting the school board for rushing its process and considering Saunders, despite the unresolved allegations.

Tuesday was the first time Saunders publicly addressed the claims. Previously, all statements were made through district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum.

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“On a personal note, I have been disappointed — but not discouraged — by the seemingly sudden array of accusations alleged against me,” Saunders said. “During almost three decades of prior service in public education in Florida, my record has been of the utmost integrity.”

The school board’s chairman, Dave Miner, followed with his own prepared statement, backing Saunders. Miner often feuded with the previous chairman, Scott Hopes, but their views often align when it comes to Saunders.

Both have said the district needs stability, a word used in Miner’s statement on Tuesday, and both feel Saunders would provide that needed security — at least for now.

Though the draft contract for Saunders runs through 2022, Miner underscored two sections in the potential agreement. If the contract were approved, the school board could end Saunders’ agreement “without cause” after 90 days’ notice, or “with cause” and no advance notice.

He emphasized a sense of urgency in his statement. While some Manatee residents have called for a national superintendent search, a priority outlined in recent school board elections, Miner said there is an immediate need for a long-term leader.

An established leader, he said, would allow the district to hire qualified teachers and establish confidence among current staff. Miner wants Saunders to fill that role.

Miner also addressed criticism linked to the possible reversal of a board decision. While the board previously voted 4-1 to prohibit Saunders from accepting the long-term position, a new contract would nullify the provision.

“Board discussions suggest that more than one board member believes the current superintendent has carried out her duties in a highly admirable manner, far above prior expectations, and that no one exists better qualified to serve the district in the immediate future,” Miner said.

At the start of his prepared statement, Miner said he was speaking for himself and not for other board members. Though Miner and Hopes are solid votes in favor of Saunders’ long-term contract, it’s unclear whether Gina Messenger, James Golden and Charlie Kennedy will follow suit.

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The board was originally scheduled to review Saunders’ draft agreement on Tuesday afternoon, and to vote on the contract Jan. 22. The board canceled its discussion amid Hopes’ out-of-state trip.

Both the discussion and the vote will now take place on Feb. 12.

Speaking on Tuesday evening, Kennedy urged residents to continue calling and emailing the school board with feedback on Saunders’ possible contract.

Board members are available at the following emails:

  • Vice Chair Gina Messenger —
  • Chairman Dave Miner —
  • Charlie Kennedy —
  • Scott Hopes —
  • James Golden —

“The board is listening,” Kennedy said. “We are hearing your input; we are hearing your ideas.”