Manatee superintendent inflated graduation rates. State board says she deserves more punishment

The Education Practices Commission has unanimously rejected a settlement agreement for Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of the Manatee County School District, after investigators found that she manipulated home-school records and inflated high school graduation rates.

Saunders attended the school board meeting in Bradenton on Tuesday afternoon, while the state commission gathered at an Embassy Suites hotel in Fort Lauderdale. More than 20 supporters of Lincoln Memorial Academy, a former charter school that was recently taken over by the school district, traveled by bus to push for greater sanctions at the hearing.

Saunders can now choose to re-enter settlement negotiations or take her case to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.

“As I explore all further options in this matter, I remain confident that I will prevail on the merits,” Saunders said in a prepared statement, sent through district spokesman Mike Barber. “I am grateful for the continued support and my focus remains on the mission of providing the best possible education for all Manatee County students.”

As the hearing kicked off on Tuesday afternoon, commission members immediately questioned the proposed settlement and whether it fit the severity of findings against Saunders.

“I’m not happy with the settlement at all,” said Christie Gold, the presiding officer. “This doesn’t seem like a sanction at all to me.”

The settlement agreement included a letter of reprimand, a $750 fine and two years of probation. But probation and the related sanctions, including an ethics course and full cooperation with requests from the Florida Department of Education, would not take effect unless Saunders worked in a job requiring an educator certificate.

Her current position in Bradenton does not require a certificate.

“I feel like we hold our teachers, our coaches, to higher standards,” said Kathy Wilks, a committee member. “I feel like a loophole is being taken advantage of with this.”

Saunders’ attorney, Terry Harmon, and the state’s attorney, Bonnie Wilmot, both highlighted the work that went into reaching a settlement. The simple act of accepting a settlement, Wilmot said, was punishment enough for the superintendent.

“Everybody knows about this,” Wilmot said. “Many educators walk away from here with probation. Them and their principals are the only ones who know about it. Other people, they just go on with their life. This superintendent won’t be able to do that. Everyone knows about it.”

The DOE’s Office of Inspector General and the Office of Professional Practice Services investigated Saunders and found that she directed employees to withdraw failing high school seniors into home school, when many had no intention of entering home education.

Many of the students actually pursued their GED, and the “withdrawal code” for home-school students and GED students is different. The result was a “falsely inflated graduation rate” between 2014 and 2016, according to investigators.

The superintendent and her attorneys have argued that Saunders learned the practice during her time in Marion County. They said no concerns arose after she brought the policy to Manatee in 2013, as its executive director of secondary education.

“I think that’s a very weak excuse for allowing this to happen, especially when you’re working at such a high level for a district,” Gold said during the hearing. “It’s your responsibility to make sure you’re doing things the way they should be done.”

“The level of fraud is concerning,” she continued.

In the 2014-2015 school year, only six out of 121 withdrawn seniors were properly coded as home-school students, investigators reported.

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.

Ric Mellin, the co-presiding officer at Tuesday’s commission meeting, said he was concerned about where the students landed after being withdrawn and incorrectly labeled.

“We’re hearing that she’s taken ownership and put corrective measures in place,” he said. “But as I sat and read this, and I continue to think right now, what about those other students? Did we do them an injustice by coding them incorrectly? What happened to them?”

At the meeting’s start, a committee member said only case evidence and attorney arguments would be included in the discussion— no outside comments were up for consideration.

Still, more than a dozen Manatee residents sat in a silent protest, holding signs that criticized Saunders and called for her removal. Michelle Williams, a Tampa-based activist, organized the bus ride to Fort Lauderdale.

“I was so elated how they all felt the compassion,” she said. “And they posed the same question the community has been posing: Where are those children?”

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.