Why did schools Superintendent Saunders give a dozen raises to Manatee administrators?

Some residents are unhappy with a string of raises made during the start of Cynthia Saunders’ tenure as the interim superintendent of Manatee County schools.

Saunders took the place of former Superintendent Diana Greene on July 1. Her appointment was followed by a rumor: unbeknownst to the school board, Saunders adjusted the salary of top administrator just days after taking the reins in Manatee.

Area newspapers published the opinion of two retired principals, Judy Bayer and Minnie King, in early January. Both questioned the raises and the lack of transparency.

Dave Miner, the board chair, then read from a prepared statement at the board meeting on Jan. 8.

“The law and board policies provide a superintendent with authority and discretion for adjusting salaries for retaining and rewarding top-level administrators as the superintendent deems best for the district, without prior board notification,” he said.

On Friday, Miner said he was unaware the raises took place, but he commended the superintendent for rewarding her staff — some for an increased workload — and for addressing turnover problems in the district.

“There are those who complain that there was something self-serving or wrong, and that is just incorrect,” Miner said. “That’s the kindest way to put it, looking for excuses to falsely place Cynthia Saunders in a bad light.”

Confirming previous statements by Miner, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said the board approves new positions, job descriptions and salary ranges, along with the people meant to fill those positions. The superintendent, he said, can adjust salaries without board approval.

The former principals clarified their stance in follow-up interviews on Friday morning. It was less about the raises, they said, and more about the lack of notification to board members or Manatee residents.

“Don’t run the school district like its all yours and nobody else gets to know anything else about it,” King said.

In response, district spokesman Mike Barber provided the adjustments and other supporting documentation. Between interim and long-term leaders, Manatee had eight superintendents, six operational deputies and seven chief information officers since 2009, according to his email.

“Just as it is vitally important to have competitive salaries to recruit and retain teachers and school-based staff, it is also important to attract and retain highly-qualified professionals to fill positions in senior leadership,” Barber wrote.

“It is important to note and understand that no millage funds are being used to pay for salary adjustments” among the senior leaders, he continued, adding that most adjustments are funded by a vacant deputy position.

Saunders declined to comment, according to a follow-up email on Friday.

“The superintendent feels the information we have provided is sufficient and she does not have anything to add,” it states.

On July 6, about one week after her swearing-in ceremony, Saunders sent a memo to Ron Ciranna, then the deputy superintendent of business services and operations. She requested an adjustment for five employees, and one degree supplement for another.

Teitelbaum, the district attorney, received a $3,000 master’s degree supplement.

The other employees were compensated for their additional duties, which arose after Saunders left her role as deputy superintendent of instruction, a position that remains vacant. Four people received an adjustment:

  • Doug Wagner, the executive director of adult, career and technical education, moved from $122,729 to $131,782, an increase of about 7.4 percent. After the investigation and retirement of a deputy superintendent, Wagner was named interim deputy superintendent of operations, increasing his salary to $135,145 — or another 2.6 percent.
  • Kimberly Organek, the executive director of instruction and professional learning, moved from $96,767 to $102,694, or 6.1 percent.
  • Mike Rio, the executive director of elementary education, moved from $123,954 to $131,782, or 6.3 percent.
  • Shirin Gibson, the director of assessment and research, moved from $100,930 to $107,105, or 6.1 percent.

Robin Thompson, the director of early learning, moved from $98,707 to $105,009, or 6.4 percent. She previously took on extra duties but her pay grade was not adjusted, according to the memo.

On Sep. 13, Saunders sent another memo to Wagner, who recently became the deputy superintendent of operations. The memo requested a pay increase for seven directors, the result of Manatee’s salary analysis.

Compared to Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, the entry-level salary for Manatee directors was, on average, 11 to 19 percent lower, according to the district’s analysis.

For that reason:

  • Elena Garcia, the director of federal programs, moved from $98,956 to $102,949, or 4 percent.
  • Jason Harris, the director of transportation, moved from $97,011 to $100,930, or 4 percent.
  • Regina Thoma, the director of food services, moved from $87,867 to $93,244, or 6.1 percent. Manatee’s general fund is not used for Thoma’s position, as food programs are funded by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
  • Ruth Gruett, the director of purchasing, moved from $95,110 to $98,956, or 4 percent.
  • Anthony Losada, the director of secondary curriculum and professional learning, moved from $97,011 to $100,930, or 4 percent.
  • Vickie Williams, the director of elementary cirriculum and professional learning, moved from $87,867 to $93,244, or 6.1 percent.
  • Michael Barber, the director of communications, moved from $84,455 to $89,625, or 6.1 percent.

In total, 12 of approximately 32 people on Saunders’ leadership team received a pay increase between July and September, and one received a degree supplement.

When including Wagner’s two raises and Teitelbaum’s degree supplement, and excluding Thoma’s salary, the decisions totaled nearly $68,000. According to a breakdown from the district, all adjustments are covered by a budget line for Manatee’s vacant deputy superintendent position, which holds approximately $156,000.

“That’s significant, and that usually makes the papers,” said Bayer, a former principal at Florine J. Abel Elementary School.

Bayer said she would prefer sweeping decisions to appear on a school board agenda or other forms of public notice. Her husband, Kris, retired as the principal of Kinnan Elementary School.

Kris Bayer said teachers and principals should receive equal consideration. While district employees collect a supplement from the one-mill increase on property taxes, approved by voters in March, the referendum expires on June 30, 2022.

Competitive salaries would be threatened if voters decide not to renew the tax increase, Kris Bayer said, explaining his view of Saunders’ actions.

“We’re not faulting those people getting a raise,” he said. “It’s how she did it, and why the teachers, again, would be on the short end of the stick.”

King is a former principal at Bashaw Elementary School. She believes a lack of transparency led to the rumors and negative perceptions.

“Why is she doing these things as an interim and not first talking it over with the board?” she said. “It does look like she’s trying to pay people off, so instead of making it look like that to the public, do it the right way.”