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East County Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019 5 months ago

Education Practices Commission rejects DOE's settlement with Superintendent Cynthia Saunders

District's attorney says Saunders "will remain focused on building on a legacy of success."
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

After the state’s Education Practices Commission rejected a proposed settlement Oct. 8 between the Florida Department of Education and Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, the school district’s attorney said the action was solely whether or not to approve the proposed settlement agreement reached last spring.

Mitchell Teitelbaum, general counsel for the School District of Manatee County, said the Oct. 8 decision was solely to decide whether to approve the settlement agreement and not to rehash the merits of the case.

“It was not a hearing on the merits of the case for which the settlement was agreed upon,” said General Counsel for the School District of Manatee County Mitchell Teitelbaum. “Anyone who believes that the decision reached [Oct. 8] was a decision based on the merits of the case involving Superintendent Saunders is sadly mistaken.”

Teitelbaum said as the Florida Department of Education reevaluates the settlement, Saunders “will remain focused on building on a legacy of success she has helped bring to the School District of Manatee County.”

The settlement rejection comes five months after the Florida Department of Education proposed a settlement with Saunders as a result of the charges that Saunders inflated the district’s graduation rates.

An investigation by the DOE’s Office of Inspector General opened in 2016. Saunders then was the district’s deputy superintendent of instruction. On Dec. 6, 2018, Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart announced two statute violations and five rules violations against Saunders that included filing fraudulent information, using coercive means or promised special treatment to influence professional judgements of colleagues, and failure to maintain honesty in all professional dealings.

The DOE reprimanded Saunders for her role in inflating the district’s graduation rates between 2014 and 2016 by instructing subordinate district employees to improperly code student withdrawals, which caused the district’s graduation rate to be improperly reflected.

Saunders, who said before the hearing that she expected the settlement to be behind her, has yet to indicate what her next step will be to satisfy the Education Practices Commission. Cheryl Etters, the deputy director of communications for the DOE, said Saunders could negotiate a new settlement that is more acceptable to the Education Practices Commission, or she could take part in a hearing by the Division of Administrative Hearings. Etters said Saunders could also schedule an informal hearing before the Education Practices Commission.

The settlement previously agreed upon in May would have forced Saunders to pay a $750 fine, and she would receive two years probation if she takes a position that requires an educator’s certificate. She doesn’t need to hold an educator’s certificate as superintendent. As part of the settlement, she neither agreed to the allegations nor denied them.

The decision by the Education Practices Commission took the Rev. James Golden, a member of the School Board of Manatee County who represents the Lakewood Ranch area, by surprise.

“We were believing this matter would have been resolved with the settlement agreement between the Department of Education and our superintendent,” Golden said.

Golden said the board has not yet met to discuss the rejection, and he hasn’t heard from Saunders nor the Department of Education regarding next steps.

In a statement, Saunders said she remains confident she “will prevail on the merits” as she explores further options.

“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,” she said.

Golden said the proposed settlement had no impact on Saunders’ work as superintendent.

“I’ve been satisfied with her conduct, competence and commitment to the district,” he said.

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