Superintendent, critics debate the state of the Manatee County School District

Is the School District of Manatee County on a path to prosperity? It depends on who you ask.

Manatee Tiger Bay Club held a forum at Pier 22 on Thursday afternoon, featuring Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, school board member Charlie Kennedy, retired educator Minnie King and teachers’ union leader Pat Barber.

“I would not be standing here today unless I was absolutely convinced that we were definitely moving in the right direction,” Saunders said.

Conversely, some in attendance felt Manatee should work on listening to the needs and concerns of its employees.

“Way, way too often what I hear from them is that things are not good in our district, not good for employees,” King said. “That’s the atmosphere and the culture has suffered.”

The superintendent said Manatee is light years ahead in the area of finances and academics. The district maintained a B grade for three of the last four years, as opposed to the C grade it held from 2012 to 2014.

Manatee hired Saunders as the executive director of secondary schools in 2013, when Manatee had 18 schools with a D or F grade. Last year there were six D’s and no F’s.

The ultimate goal, she said, is to become an A-rated district.

“No matter how many times the state changes the standards, the scoring measurements, we are on a steady climb to become one of the best districts in the state,” Saunders said.

Manatee advanced from a $3.4 million deficit in the 2012-2013 budget to a recent fund balance, or surplus, of $30 million, Saunders said. The district is also working to renovate its facilities and open three new schools: Parrish Community High School, Dr. Mona Jain Middle School and Barbara A. Harvey Elementary School.

Much of the progress resulted from community support, Saunders said, pointing to the one-mill increase on property taxes. Voters approved the tax referendum last March, making way for increased salaries throughout much of the district.

Voters also approved an extension of the half-cent sales tax in 2016, a measure that was first approved in 2002. The money is funding Manatee’s ongoing construction and renovations.

Noting recent struggles, she said the district would fill “scores of vacancies.” Saunders also said the district would address ongoing problems with its business management software, or ERP system, which first launched in July — $10 million over budget and more than a year behind schedule.

“We acknowledge it’s been a nightmare,” she said of the ERP system. “Perhaps the biggest challenge of my career was stepping in on day one as superintendent and seeing the magnitude of the problem.”

Saunders became the deputy superintendent of instruction in 2015, and the superintendent in late June.

The school board recently extended her interim contract by more than two years, despite ongoing questions about whether she inflated past graduation rates, an accusation levied by the Florida Department of Education.

Susan Copeland, a member of Tiger Bay, submitted a question online: Did the superintendent remove struggling students from high school and enroll them in home-school to improve graduation rates?

“I appreciate you asking that,” Saunders responded. “The answer is no, I did not.”

“It should be resolved very shortly,” she continued. “Once it is, all the facts and the details will prevail.”

Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, spoke on the plight of Florida’s educators. She believes local woes are the result of decisions made by the state.

The state, she said, ranks No. 42 in education spending per student, and it ranks No. 51 — including the District of Columbia — in public school revenue for every $1,000 of personal income generated by Florida residents.

“In other words, no other state collects less to support public schools in Florida,” she said. “This is in spite of the fact that Florida has the seventh largest economy in our country.”

And despite pay increases in Manatee, teachers in Florida are paid less than educators in almost every other state. Barber said Florida’s teachers receive about $10,000 less a year than the national average.

“The promise of beautiful beaches and sunny days, although attractive, is not enough anymore,” she said.

King, another member on the panel, retired as the principal of Bashaw Elementary School after 35 years of working in the district. School grades and and strong finances tell only half the story, she said.

While the district is struggling to fill vacancies, King believes funding and legislation are not the sole reason.

“Our culture is lacking, and there are people within our district who are very unhappy and are leaving our district in droves,” she said.

King was a student in Manatee schools before she was a district employee and the parent of local students. She stayed in touch with high school friends, former colleagues and her past students.

Educators, she said, feel under-appreciated and ignored. Some believe that all decisions are made from the top, with no input from people at the school level.

But their concerns are largely unheard, King said, because they fear retaliation from top-level administrators.

During the period for questions, district spokesman Mike Barber asked Kennedy, a school board member with prior teaching experience, about his view on Manatee’s culture.

“It’s a mixed bag, culture wise,” Kennedy responded.

“You can’t argue with data — you just cannot,” he continued. “You can argue with how that data is achieved, and that’s an argument that’s never going to be settled.”

The forum ended with Mary Condron, a retired educator who became a Tiger Bay member, paying the $100 sign-up fee, just to ask a question of Saunders on Thursday afternoon.

Condron said King was right about the lacking morale in some of Manatee’s classrooms, the driving force behind her retirement one year ago.

“I couldn’t teach the way I felt was best for my students, and I’m not alone in that feeling,” she said.

Condron asked whether the superintendent would conduct a climate survey to gauge the opinion of more than 7,000 employees in the school district.

In response, Saunders said she planned to develop a five-year plan for the district’s future, starting with input from parents, teachers and students. She said the district would hire an outside agency to conduct the survey.

The future is often a mystery, but Xtavia Bailey, the president of Tiger Bay, underscored the reason for Thursday’s event.

“We all might not have the same idea of how we’re going to move forward, but we know we want to get there for our children, our teachers, our staff that are working in the district, and also our community,” she 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.