Manatee Superintendent Saunders faces reprimand, probation in graduation inflation case

Watch Cynthia Saunders become Manatee’s superintendent

Cynthia Saunders, formerly the deputy superintendent of instructional services, became the superintendent of Manatee County schools on Thursday afternoon.
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Cynthia Saunders, formerly the deputy superintendent of instructional services, became the superintendent of Manatee County schools on Thursday afternoon.

The Florida Department of Education will reprimand Superintendent Cynthia Saunders, leader of the Manatee County School District, for her connection to the inflated graduation rates that took place between 2014 and 2016.

She served as executive director of secondary education during that time. Now, she faces two years of probation, a letter of reprimand and a fine of $750, pending approval by the Education Practices Commission. Saunders neither admits nor denies the allegations, according to the agreement.

However, it seems the superintendent will avoid many of the sanctions outlined in her agreement. Probation, along with the related fine, would only take effect if Saunders were in a position that required an educator certificate, according to the settlement.

Terry Harmon, the superintendent’s attorney, sent a letter to DOE attorney Matthew Mears last week, clarifying that no educator certificate was needed as superintendent, even though she holds one.

The letter said Saunders would only accept the agreement if she could avoid probation in her current role.

“My client is accepting the agreement with the understanding that the terms of probation outlined in Section 5 will not begin unless she is employed in the future in such a position, meaning she will not have to complete the requirements outlined in Section 5 while she is serving as Superintendent,” he wrote.

Saunders sent a prepared statement through district spokesman Mike Barber on Tuesday afternoon.

“Although I am confident I would have prevailed on the merits had this matter not been resolved, the decision to conclude this matter is in the best interest of the district and my role as superintendent in moving the district forward,” it states.

The Office of the Inspector General, within the state DOE, believes Saunders directed her staff to improperly code departing students, causing the graduation rate to appear more favorable. High schools in Manatee County were coding students as if they withdrew to home school when they actually left to pursue a GED.

The agreement between Saunders and the state, signed on May 3 and received by the Bradenton Herald on Tuesday, said the superintendent “shall cooperate fully, truthfully, and completely with the Department of Education during the term of probation.”

“Such cooperation includes responding truthfully and completely to inquiries by DOE personnel, attending meetings when requested by DOE, voluntarily providing all documents, records and tangible evidence in her possession or control, unless covered by attorney-client privilege or other privileges and testifying truthfully in administrative proceedings or other proceedings,” it continues.

Dave Miner, the school board’s chairman, declined to comment on Tuesday afternoon. Board member Scott Hopes previously criticized the investigation for focusing on Saunders and not Diana Greene, who worked as superintendent during the period in question.

Hopes and Miner were both proponents of hiring Saunders as the district’s long-term superintendent, despite the ongoing settlement negotiations, citing the need for stability. After several delays, the board voted 3-2 to award Saunders the contract and a yearly salary of $196,000.

Hopes again cited stability in response to the settlement agreement.

“It puts this issue behind us and we can move forward,” he said. “That’s what’s important. This focus is on the organization, on academic achievement and student success.”

At the contract approval on Feb. 12, Vice-Chair Gina Messenger and board member Charlie Kennedy cast the dissenting votes. Kennedy said the superintendent should first clear the ongoing allegations, and both said the district should hold a formal search process before making a decision.

The accusations surfaced in early December, just hours before the school board met to consider Saunders’ long-term contract and to remove “interim” from her title.

According to the Dec. 6 letter from Pam Stewart, the former education commissioner, Saunders allegedly violated two state statutes and five sections of Florida Administrative Code:

  • Personal conduct which seriously reduces effectiveness as an employee of the school board, in violation of Florida Statutes.
  • An offense against the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession, in violation of Florida Statutes.
  • Intentionally distorting or misrepresenting facts concerning and educational matter in direct or indirect public expression, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Using institutional privileges for personal gain or advantage, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Failing to maintain honestly in all professional dealings, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Using coercive means or promised special treatment to influence professional judgments of colleagues, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.
  • Submitting fraudulent information on a document in connection with professional activities, in violation of Florida Administrative Code.

Saunders told investigators she learned the process that led to the state investigation during her time in Marion County, and that Manatee would immediately address the Department of Education’s concerns.

She worked as a principal in Marion County before joining the School District of Manatee County as its executive director of secondary education in 2013. She became the deputy superintendent of instruction about two years later.

And in 2016, the DOE started to investigate Saunders. Speaking in her defense, a Tampa-based law firm responded with a 15-page letter, calling the allegations “invalid and without any basis.”

Still, the case continued.

“I am deeply thankful and grateful for the school board that has stood behind me, the employees of the district and the community that have and continue to believe in me,” Saunders wrote on Tuesday. “I will continue to focus my full attention on the operations and the mission of the district to provide the best possible education for all Manatee County students.”