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East County Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018 1 year ago

Manatee district interim superintendent faces sanctions from state's commissioner of education

School board delays contract offer to School District of Manatee County Interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

At a time when the School Board of Manatee County has been considering whether to offer Interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders the permanent position, Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart has accused her of two statute violations and five rules violations.

Those violations, which were delivered Dec. 6, include 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.

Stewart's letter stated, "I find probable cause exists to justify sanctions against your Florida Educator Certificate. Penalties levied against you may include reprimand, fine, probation, restriction of the scope of practice, suspension not to exceed five years, revocation not to exceed 10 years or the permanent revocation of your Educator Certificate."

In material allegations, Saunders is accused, from 2014 to 2016, of "fraudulently inflating graduation rates for her district by instructing subordinate district employees to improperly code student withdrawals. Respondent improperly instructed district employees to code withdrawing students as "withdrawn to home education" when neither the students nor the students' parents had any intention of home schooling."

The complaint noted that during 2014-2015, only six of 121 withdrawing students were coded properly, causing the district's graduation rate to be improperly reflected.

The School District of Manatee County issued a response through Mitchell Teitelbaum, the district's general counsel.

"The allegations of the Office of Inspector General and Department of Education that the District purposely and willingly sought to enhance graduation rates is unsupported by any empirical evidence. At no time did Ms. Saunders direct staff to inflate graduation rates and improperly code students. The record clearly shows the opposite of any intent to purposefully skew numbers. No one, including the Office of Inspector General or DOE, has any basis for that accusation."

Teitelbaum said the School District of Manatee County never experienced any financial benefits or change in the district's grades due to students being improperly coded. He said Saunders will appeal the charges  "to preserve her outstanding reputation that she has established after 28 years of service to public education."

Teitelbaum said Saunders implemented the same process in Manatee County that she was trained to use as a high school principal in Marion County in 2010-2011. He said the process had never been disputed during that time.

Saunders was notified in October 2016 that the state had concerns about the process and she immediately ordered an internal audit and put corrective actions and safeguards in place.

At Tuesday night's school board meeting, board members agreed to delay a decision to offer Saunders a new contract for the permanent position until Jan. 22.

Members Scott Hopes and Chairman Dave Miner urged their fellow board members to act swiftly to provide stability to the district, but fellow members James Golden, Charlie Kennedy and Gina Messenger said they needed more time.

The board now is slated to discuss Saunders' new contract at its Jan. 8 meeting.


— Pam Eubanks contributed to this story

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