The end of the case against Manatee schools superintendent over graduation rates may be near

Cynthia Saunders, superintendent for the School District of Manatee County, is scheduled to finalize a settlement with the Education Practices Commission on Tuesday, declining to fight allegations that she manipulated home-school records and inflated the district’s high school graduation rate between 2014 and 2016.

Saunders will face the commission, an independent body within the Florida Department of Education, during a 3 p.m. hearing in Fort Lauderdale. Dozens of Manatee County residents are expected to attend the hearing and push for harsher sanctions against the superintendent.

The commission will decide whether to accept the superintendent’s agreement, which includes two years of probation, a letter of reprimand and a $750 fine.

But even if the agreement is finalized, Saunders is likely to avoid probation and all of the related sanctions, including an ethics course and a requirement to provide “all documents, records and tangible evidence” requested by the DOE.

According to the agreement negotiated by her attorney, Terry Harmon, the probation would only take effect if Saunders worked in a position that required an educator certificate. No such credential is needed in her role as superintendent, the attorney said.

As part of the agreement, Saunders said she “neither admits nor denies” the allegations, which date back to her time as the executive director of secondary education in Manatee.

The charges levied against Saunders — two violations of state statute and five violations of Florida Administrative Code — were first revealed in a December 2018 letter from Pam Stewart, the former education commissioner.

Saunders had the option to contest those accusations in a Florida Division of Administrative hearings, but she accepted the settlement on May 3.

Days later, in response to an inquiry from the Bradenton Herald, the superintendent sent a prepared statement through district spokesman Mike Barber.

“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.

‘Finding of Probable Cause’

Stewart, the state’s former education commissioner, levied several charges against Saunders last year:

  • 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 an 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 honesty 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.

“I find probable cause exists to justify sanctions against your Florida educator certificate,” Stewart said in her letter to the superintendent on Dec. 6, 2018.

The investigation opened in October 2016, after the state noticed that Manatee “withdrew their students from high school and enrolled them in home school at a rate far exceeding the state average.”

Saunders joined the district as its executive director of secondary education in 2013, before she advanced to become the deputy superintendent of instruction in 2015. According to investigators, the number of home-school students jumped after her arrival:

  • In 2012-2013, the district reported 16 seniors as home-school withdrawals.

  • In 2013-2014, the district reported 15 seniors as home-school withdrawals.

  • In 2014-2015, the district reported 121 seniors as home-school withdrawals.

  • In 2015-2016, the district reported 169 seniors as home-school withdrawals.

The first review was conducted by investigators with the education department’s Office of Inspector General. They interviewed district employees and concluded that Saunders ordered staff to code high school seniors as “withdrawn to home school” when, in many cases, the students dropped out with no intention of entering home education.

Most students actually pursued their GED, and records should be coded differently for GED and home-school students. The result was “falsely inflated graduation rates,” the report said, citing numbers from the 2014-2015 school year, when only six of 121 students were properly coded.

The report also referenced interviews with Alicia Carrillo, a choice program specialist; and Paula Nigrelli, a senior report specialist.

“Ms. Carrillo stated that she told Ms. Saunders the process was being done incorrectly, and her office has never withdrawn a student to home education who wanted to get their GED,” the report states.

“When asked why a student pursuing their GED is coded as a home education student, Ms. Nigrelli stated that was the directive given to her by Deputy Superintendent Cynthia Saunders,” it continues. “When asked if she felt the directive by Ms. Saunders was unethical or misleading, Ms. Nigrelli stated that she was concerned it was going to cause problems down the road.”

In her own conversation with investigators, Saunders said she learned the process in Marion County, where she worked as a principal.

“That was the process and the method I was trained for, so that was the method I communicated to the high school principals” the report states, quoting Saunders.

“Ms. Saunders stated that FDOE never indicated that Marion or Manatee County were coding students incorrectly, and she welcomes guidance to correct their practices if needed,” it continues.

In the 2014-2015 school year, the graduation rates at six high schools — Bayshore, Lakewood Ranch, Manatee, Palmetto, Southeast and Braden River — were falsely increased by 1.4 to 6.2 percentage points, according to the report.

The school district’s graduation rate increased from about 75 percent to nearly 78 percent, and its statewide rank rose from No. 49 to No. 35, the report noted.

State investigators urged the school district to audit its home-school records, and Manatee found that a majority of withdrawals were linked to Horizons Academy, an alternative school.

District officials soon pointed the finger at Horizons, but the revelation was likely unsurprising to those who worked at the alternative school. In their report, investigators quoted Andrea Dawsey, the campus registrar.

“Ms. Dawsey stated that the district puts a lot of pressure on Horizons to boost graduation rates because they are considered the school with troubled students known to have a high number of dropouts,” they reported.

Attorney Erin Jackson advocated for Saunders in a letter dated Oct. 30, 2017, arguing that Manatee had nothing to gain, “financially or otherwise,” when it came to graduation rates.

“An intent to falsely inflate graduation rates should not be confused with a school district’s intent to provide students with as many options as possible to achieve educational success and hopefully pursue post-secondary education,” Jackson wrote.

The Bradenton Herald obtained and published the accusations against Saunders on Dec. 11, the same day Manatee’s school board was scheduled to vote on a long-term contract for Saunders, then the interim superintendent.

Though it delayed the vote, the school board ultimately voted 3-2 to approve Saunders’ long-term contract on Feb. 12. The agreement runs through June 30, 2021, and includes an annual salary of $196,000.

School board Chairman Dave Miner joined Scott Hopes and James Golden in approving the contract, citing the need for stability, while Vice-Chair Gina Messenger and board member Charlie Kennedy cast the dissenting votes.

“As I am sure you are aware, despite the existence of this case and the findings of OIG, the school board had confidence in Ms. Saunders’ abilities and appointed her to full-time superintendent on February 12, 2019,” attorney Harmon wrote during settlement negotiations.

The investigation timeline

  • October 2016 — Florida Department of Education, Office of Inspector General opens an investigation into Cynthia Saunders, then the deputy superintendent of instruction.

  • November 2017 — investigators finalized their report, substantiating the allegations against Saunders.

  • December 2017 — OIG referred its findings to the Office of Professional Practices Services, another department within the state DOE, for its own review. Investigators alerted Mitchell Teitelbaum, the school district attorney; and Diana Greene, then the district superintendent, according to state documents.

  • January 2018 — OPPS alerted Saunders of the new investigation, requesting that witnesses and pertinent documents be submitted by February 2018.

  • May 2018 — OPPS sent another letter to Saunders, offering an opportunity to review the preliminary findings.

  • June 2018 — Saunders presented her rebuttal in a phone call with state officials. The phone call was on June 11, 2018, and she was sworn in as the interim superintendent about two weeks later.

  • December 2018 — Pam Stewart sends a “Finding of Probable Cause” to Saunders. The letter was dated Dec. 6, 2018, five days before the school board was scheduled to vote on Saunders’ long-term superintendent contract.

  • May 2019 — Saunders agrees to a settlement agreement, electing not to contest the allegations in front of an administrative law judge.

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.