Job interview reveals bad blood between school district’s HR chief and superintendent

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Sarah Brown, the departing chief of human resources, used a public job interview in Montana to address concerns about her department in the Manatee County School District, and to share her grievances against Manatee Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.

Brown is among three finalists for the superintendent position in Bozeman Public Schools, in Montana. After fielding general questions for more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon, Brown asked to speak privately with the Board of Trustees, but she later spoke in public after consulting with the school board’s chairman, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Brown started by informing them of a Bradenton Herald article about her resignation in May, and a follow-up article about a study, commissioned by Saunders and carried out by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents in April, that was critical of several facets of her department’s operations.

Brown, who will officially leave the district at the end of June, has not returned several requests for comment over the past two weeks.

Under a section entitled “pervasive issues,” the 42-page report cited her department for a lack of communication and decisiveness, noting that some principals viewed HR as an “impediment.” Brown said the report overshadowed her accomplishments and obstacles, and she underscored her sour relationship with Saunders, questioning her motivations.

“The information that is being shared is not accurate and is ill-intended,” Brown said.

Brown worked as the chief of HR for more than four years. In that time, Saunders advanced from a deputy superintendent to superintendent.

“The deputy superintendent of instruction and I worked collaboratively to the best of our abilities over those three years that we had known each other,” Brown said.” However, we were not good friends of one another.”

“In fact, I knew that her style was not something I would ever be able to work with before,” she continued.

Brown said she was motivated by the planned opening of new elementary, middle and high schools this upcoming August. She remained in her position as the chief of HR to ensure the schools were properly staffed, despite her poor relationship with Saunders, according to Wednesday’s interview.

“But I was very mindful of the fact that she was not a fan of mine, and I knew that from the very beginning,” Brown said.

As she challenged the motivations behind Manatee’s HR study, Brown also brought Saunders’ ethics into question, underscoring a multi-year investigation by the Florida Department of Education. The superintendent accepted a settlement in early May, neither admitting nor denying that she inflated graduation rates between 2014 and 2016, according to the agreement.

“So when I say this is someone I wouldn’t want to work for, please believe me,” Brown said on Wednesday.

In response, Saunders sent a prepared statement through district spokesman Mike Barber.

“The Focus Study conducted by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) is available for anyone to view,” she wrote. “The School District of Manatee County thanks Dr. Sarah Brown for her service to our students and schools and wishes her success in all future endeavors.”

In her interview on Wednesday afternoon, Brown went on to highlight several accomplishments during her tenure as the chief HR officer. Manatee’s HR department persevered in the face of rampant turnover, she said, citing three deputy superintendents and four superintendents — interim or long-term — who have worked in the district since 2015.

Brown said she established job fairs and increased both hiring and retention by more than 20 percent. And the district had only 35 vacancies by September, despite a nationwide teacher shortage, Brown continued.

“That is not a falling-apart district,” she said. “It is not a falling-apart department. It is not a department that does not work hard or have wonderful relationships with their principals, with their staff, with their other departments.”

When asked to verify the accomplishments shared on Wednesday, Barber declined to comment further.

The new study referenced a November 2018 survey of 53 principals and other administrators. Consultants also spoke with school board members, HR staff, school employees and district administrators, according to the report.

“There appears to be an ‘us vs. them’ mentality between the HR department and the schools they serve,” it states. “It appears that schools often view HR as an impediment rather than a vehicle to assist them in their everyday responsibilities.”

In the 2018 survey, more than 70 percent of respondents said they began school without a full staff, and that HR failed to regularly provide data on employee attendance, leave and turnover, among other helpful information about the schools.

More than 60 percent of people disagreed when asked if the HR department found “viable and well-qualified candidates” for their vacancies, and at least half of the school leaders disagreed when asked if “the application process for candidates is user friendly.”

An equal number of principals either agreed or strongly disagreed when asked if they were “pleased with the level of customer service” they received from HR.

“Because the responses were so varied, the question arises: Are all schools receiving adequate support according to their individual school needs?” the report said.

FADSS, the organization behind Manatee’s new report, relied on content experts and good intentions during the study, according to an email from spokeswoman Diana Oropallo.

“The goal of any such study is for qualified, outside educators and content experts to gather in-depth information about the district so that the superintendent and the board can consider the observations and recommendations when making district strategic decisions,” she wrote.