Charges against superintendent remain unsettled. School board to vote on new contract.

The School Board of Manatee County will vote on a long-term contract for Superintendent Cynthia Saunders at Tuesday’s meeting. Meanwhile, the superintendent is still negotiating a settlement with the Florida Department of Education, which recently accused her of inflating the graduation rate in 2014-2015.

Board members will discuss the contract at Tuesday’s workshop, scheduled for 3 p.m. at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W. The board will then take a vote at the regular meeting, which starts at 5:45 p.m.

Saunders’ draft contract was on the board’s Dec. 11 agenda. However, the superintendent received a letter from Pam Stewart, then the state’s education commissioner, less than a week before the vote.

It announced the findings of an investigation that dates back to 2016, accusing Saunders of inflating the district’s past graduation rate.

The graduation rate was inaccurate at six high schools in the 2014-2015 school year, according to the DOE and its Office of the Inspector General. It said Manatee schools improperly coded GED students as home-school withdrawals, skewing the district’s overall graduation rate.

Saunders learned the procedure during her employment in Marion County Public Schools. She brought the system to Manatee as its executive director of secondary schools, but she vowed to correct the practice after hearing from investigators.

On Dec. 13, days after the original contract vote, Saunders entered a 45-day settlement negotiation with the state. A settlement would indicate that Saunders neither admits nor denies the allegations.

Sniffen and Spellman P.A., a law firm in Tallahassee, is representing the superintendent. And while the negotiation period has since passed, both parties agreed to continue their discussion.

“Negotiations with the DOE are extended with the hopes of a favorable resolution in the near future,” according to an email from Mitchell Teitelbaum, attorney for the school district.

Saunders could reach a settlement, or she could later dispute the allegations in front of the Division of Administrative Hearings.

The school board previously granted Saunders a temporary contract, including a provision that barred her from accepting the so-called permanent role. Their intention was to motivate other applicants and search for a long-term superintendent.

Tuesday’s draft agreement would remove the provision and establish Saunders as the superintendent until June 30, 2022 — a term of about three and a half years.

She would receive an annual salary of $196,000, a $10,000 increase compared to her current agreement.

“This amount is in line with similar sized districts and is slightly more than what Dr. (Diana) Greene was making under her contract,” the agenda states, referring to Manatee’s prior superintendent.

In its draft form, the contract also includes a tax sheltered annuity, 25 days of paid vacation each year, one day of sick leave per month, six personal days per year, a monthly vehicle allowance of $650 and an expense account worth $400 per month.

Either party can terminate the contract with 90 days’ notice. The district can also terminate Saunders’ agreement “with cause” for a variety of reasons.

“The grounds are limited to immorality, incompetence, gross insubordination, willful neglect of duty, drunkenness, illegal use of drugs, or commission of an act that brings public disgrace, misconduct, or conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude,” according to Tuesday’s agenda.

Board member Scott Hopes and Chairman Dave Miner were repeatedly in favor of the contract approval, pointing to Saunders’s performance and the need for district stability. Miner could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Hopes reiterated his support for the superintendent, citing the need for at least one and a half years of continued leadership. The district, he said, needs a leader to fill several vacant administrator positions, and to open three new schools in August.

“In the end, we approve a new contract for the superintendent that keeps us moving forward for the next couple of years,” he said on Monday, explaining his desired outcome. “I don’t know what the term will be.”

Gina Messenger, the board’s vice chair, could not be reached on Monday. She previously questioned the contract’s length, a conversation that may continue on Tuesday.

While board member James Golden refused to support the contract on Dec. 11, he previously said that approval was likely if nothing changed by the final vote. He could not be reached on Monday.

And board member Charlie Kennedy previously said more time was needed for Saunders and the community to respond. On Monday, Kennedy said he was keeping an open mind.

He said Tuesday’s meeting would likely include a conversation on the contract’s length, along with the possibility of conducting a superintendent search. Saunders previously said she would not participate in a search.

“I think we’ll see an interesting discussion at the workshop and get those parameters figured out,” Kennedy said.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.