Board members undecided on course of action to find new superintendent.
At least two members of the School Board of Manatee County are determined to hire the district’s interim leader for a three-year term, but fellow board members are not yet convinced.
The board in January will discuss and vote on a potential three-year contract to make Interim Superintendent Cynthia Saunders the permanent superintendent.
The move comes after the Florida Department of Education on Dec. 6 found just cause to notify Saunders she broke state statutes and rules, which included filing fraudulent information. It also noted Saunders used coercive means or promised special treatment to influence professional judgments of her colleagues, and she failed to maintain honesty in all her professional dealings.
If the board does offer Saunders the permanent job, it would supersede a provision in her one-year contract that prohibits her from applying for the post.
“This is about moving the district forward,” board member Scott Hopes said.
Hopes said the board might not have considered this course of action “in normal times” given the warning of state sanctions.
“We are not in a position to even entertain a national search,” he said. “We are at a tipping point. We truly need to move on with this.”
Hopes said the district is having problems with its new payroll and accounting software along with leadership concerns as three top-level administrative positions are vacant. He said the opening of three new schools in August and the pending start of the budget preparations for the next fiscal year are key reasons to hire Saunders. He said Saunders has proven herself to be an effective leader since assuming her role in July and has gained the support of many district staff members.
He also said as the former deputy superintendent of instructional services, Saunders is the only top-level employee who has worked on the budget in terms of allocating personnel and costs to new schools. Her curriculum position has not been filled, and she still is performing that job.
Although Hopes said he expects the board will conduct a national superintendent search within the next four years, he does not believe now is the appropriate time. He said decisions need to be made, and the district can’t wait six months to a year.
Board member Dave Miner, who had advocated to prevent Saunders from getting the permanent superintendent post, is now one of her advocates. He gives her “five gold stars” for performance and said she has been vetted over the past six months and through her prior positions with the district.
“We have a lot of very fine people working in the district and in the community, no doubt about it,” Miner said. “There is no one who is on top of this situation and as capable as (Saunders) … The message is she is the best qualified.”
The other three school board members said while Saunders is performing well, it does not mean she should be the board’s only option.
“I’m a believer people shouldn’t be frightened into the decisions they have to make,” East County’s representative James Golden said.
Golden said he is agreeable to most of the proposed contract terms but still needs more time to decide whether Saunders is the right choice. Although school district staff members have applauded the work she’s done, he said he wants to hear more from the public.
“We as board members have taken an action, as far as I’m concerned, in a vacuum. It may turn out to be the best decision,” he said. “I want everybody to see what’s on the table. I want to hear what the public thinks.”
Before being elected in August, Golden said he preferred a superintendent from outside the area’s school system. Now, however, he said he cannot imagine having a superintendent who has never been to Manatee County and sees value in hiring someone who is familiar with its issues, culture and needs. He wants to explore options, whether considering other candidates or changing Saunders’ proposed contract.
“I’m in favor of doing a better search than what has been done. I am in favor of allowing the public to provide input as to what would constitute a better search,” Golden said.
Board member Charlie Kennedy said he did not believe in the narrative that top-quality candidates would shy away from participating in a national search because of software roll-out problems and other challenges. But he said he believes Saunders would be a top candidate for the position and she is gaining popularity amongst school staff, although reviews are still mixed.
He said he believes her performance over the past six months speaks to her abilities to lead the district.
“But I believe we should see who is out there,” he said. “It’s too important of a job. And I believe we would get some top-quality candidates.”
Board member Gina Messenger echoed Kennedy’s sentiments but said she believes a decision about the superintendent should be made soon. She wants to consider changes to Saunders’ proposed contract, such as a performance evaluation.
Kennedy, Miner and Hopes said they believe the state’s findings against Saunders will prove unfounded and there should be a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Hopes said the issues identified in 2014-2015 were immediately addressed and there are “problems” with the complaint against Saunders. He and Miner questioned the timing of the findings, given the district had responded to the allegations two years ago.