School board approves Superintendent Saunders’ long-term contract

The school board approved a long-term contract for Superintendent Cynthia Saunders with a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, with board member Charlie Kennedy and Vice Chair Gina Messenger dissenting.

While the original contract was for roughly three-and-a-half years, the final agreement ends on June 30, 2021, a year shorter than previous drafts. It also established an annual salary of $196,000.

Saunders said she originally planned to accept the interim position and leave in January, though her mind changed with support from colleagues.

“That encouragement, plus the unfinished business of cleaning up the ERP, the continued academic achievement of the district, along with the support of our community, has convinced me to stay,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Kennedy said the superintendent should clear ongoing allegations from the Florida Department of Education, which accused Saunders of inflating past graduation rates.

He twice moved to postpone the vote, but his motions quickly died for lack of a second.

Kennedy and Messenger both cited the need for more due diligence and a formal search process.

“I believe our job is to ensure that we have the best person we can get, and we are not doing that if we offer this contract tonight,” Messenger said. “Perhaps Mrs. Saunders is the best, but we cannot affirm that without a search.”

A draft contract first appeared on the board’s Dec. 11 agenda. In a letter sent days earlier, then-Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said she found probable cause to justify sanctions against Saunders’ educator certificate, the result of an investigation that dates back to 2016.

Saunders, previously the executive director of secondary schools and most recently a deputy superintendent, is accused of directing employees to code GED students as home-school withdrawals, inflating Manatee’s graduation rate between 2014 and 2016.

While she disputed the accusations in 2017 and again last year, Saunders is currently negotiating a settlement with the state, neither admitting nor denying the allegations.

Board members unanimously delayed the original contract vote after a lengthy debate in December, with Scott Hopes and Dave Miner in favor of approval. A discussion scheduled for Jan. 8, about one month later, was delayed when Hopes attended former Gov. Rick Scott’s swearing-in as a U.S. Senator.

A second vote was delayed on Jan. 22 with the absence of James Golden, who visited Tallahassee for an event that was scheduled prior to his election.

Two months after the original vote, board members finalized Saunders’ contract Tuesday night. She was working under a temporary contract to fill the vacancy left by Diana Greene, now the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools.

The board held a discussion at its workshop earlier in the day, with Hopes and Miner, now the board chair, reiterating their support for Saunders. Each said the district needed more stability and less uncertainty.

“There’s nobody on the face of this earth who’s better qualified for moving us forward,” Miner said.

Board members discussed small details of the contract, but the sleepy conversation gained steam when board member Charlie Kennedy proposed another delay. He suggested posting the superintendent job for 30 days and allowing other applicants to apply.

Citing community feedback, he said the process was missing “basic due diligence,” adding that most district employees would submit an application and undergo interviews.

“I think that reflects poorly on us as board members,” he said. “And Mr. Chair, perhaps you’re right. Maybe she is the greatest superintendent on earth, but I think it’s just good governance to at least post the position and prove that she is the best person out there.”

The suggestion was not a criticism of Saunders, he said, underscoring the need to cover all bases. He said the delay would also allow Saunders to address the state’s allegations.

“I’ll say for the 10th time, I’m very confident she will be cleared,” Kennedy said. “But with the cloud of that, with the cloud of this process ... this cleans up every criticism I have heard from the anti, the pro, and the vast majority in the middle.”

“You’re absolutely right, you’re just too late,” Golden responded.

Golden said the time for a search or advertisement had passed. He later read from a message by former board member Bob Gause, who underscored the need for unity.

Hopes, the previous board chair, felt those who opposed Saunders were a vocal minority. He said the district needed a leader to fill crucial vacancies and open three new schools in August.

“There comes a time when you have to turn off the amplifiers from the public,” he said. “We have to disregard the emails and think solely about our responsibility, the needs of our organization and what, at this time, we can do to put the organization in the best position to move forward.”

As for the contract itself, Messenger recommended a section on incentive pay, driven by “a schedule of goals and measurable benchmarks.”

“Every single one of our teachers has to go through that every single year, and I think our superintendent should have to do that as well,” Messenger said.

Several district administrators spoke in favor of Saunders during the workshop, calling recent criticism an attack on her credibility.

Michael Rio, the executive director of elementary schools, said he met several great superintendents over his 25 years in the district, and that Saunders was among the best.

“I have watched each one of these leaders make mistakes and own them,” he said. “And not only own them, but take public attacks from critics and the press.”

His comment was followed by support from Shirin Gibson, the director of assessment and research.

“It seems transparency and freedom of speech have been used in a way never intended,” she said. “It seems that threats and intimidation are commonplace and are directed at our current superintendent.”

Both administrators received a pay increase of between $6,000 to nearly $8,000 after Saunders became the interim superintendent. Rodney Jones, president of the Manatee NAACP, questioned the raises in his public comment on Tuesday.

While the adjustments were listed as compensation for additional duties created by a vacant deputy position, some residents questioned the employees’ vocal support for Saunders. Jones also cited the state’s ongoing allegations.

“I don’t see a lot of teachers or other people from the district here because they are afraid,” he said.

But despite the recent criticism and pending allegations, the school board put its trust in Saunders, and she vowed to meet their expectations.

“What we need now is stability in our leadership, a team approach to solving problems and a clear vision of where we are going,” Saunders 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.