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East County Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 4 weeks ago

With contract extended, School District of Manatee County superintendent focuses on future

Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, has her contract extended through June 30, 2023.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Now that Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, has two more years to serve as the head of the district, she said she is focused on the years ahead while reflecting on her time as superintendent so far.

The School Board of Manatee County unanimously approved the extension of Saunders’ contract, which now expires June 30, 2023, during a special meeting Dec. 17. Her contract was set to expire June 30, 2021.

She will continue to make $196,000 per year.  

Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, waves to families at Braden River High School's graduation ceremony. Saunders has lead the district through many adjustments during the pandemic File photo

“She has exceeded my expectations,” said board member Scott Hopes, who made the motion to extend the superintendent’s contract. “Is she perfect? No. Each one of us makes mistakes. Each one of us can name many things we can do differently. What I’ve seen through this superintendent is the tenacity to stay focused on what’s important and that’s the education of our children.”

Board member Gina Messenger, who did not vote in favor of Saunders’ contract in 2019, said working with Saunders and seeing the superintendent address Messenger’s concerns has shifted her opinion to vote in favor of the contract extension.

“I truly believe she is absolutely the best option we have, and I think we would be short-sighted to not fully support her and continue to fully support her,” Messenger said. “It would be a grave mistake. I truly believe that.”


What lies ahead

Moving into the second semester of an abnormal school year, Saunders said she will focus on ensuring the health and safety of the district’s employees and students as more students transition to being on campus full time.

“The biggest [goal] is to ensure we’re able to get out of a pandemic in a manageable way with minimal loss, minimal infection and to ensure our academic success is still on target, so we minimize any of those gaps or the struggles students have had academically as well as emotionally from the heartache and hardships [the pandemic] has provided,” Saunders said.

Due to more students requesting to be on campus full time, schools including Braden River High School have decided to no longer offer the hybrid option of a mix of days of on-campus and online instruction to families.

Saunders had to submit a plan to the state describing what the district plans to do for students who aren’t being successful in e-learning and what support the district will offer to those students.

“We will be working with parents, and even if they’re not successful in this modality, and they don’t quite feel comfortable coming back brick and mortar, we do have some options for them,” Saunders said. “We’ll be working with them on an individual basis because every student has different circumstances.”

Providing support and items to keep students and employees successful and healthy come at a price, but Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the budget cuts the district was fearful would happen as a result of the pandemic will not occur this school year.

“We are quite pleased that even though we will have some reduction, it will be manageable,” Saunders said. “We do feel that we will be able to get through the school year and also provide increased raises and compensation to our employees.”

The district currently is negotiating contracts with the Manatee Education Association and will begin negotiations with classified employees, such as administrators and bus drivers, in January.

Part of the district’s financial stability will come from ensuring the millage continues, Saunders said.

Saunders said the millage and the community’s support is vital to the success of ensuring employees are compensated well and the district can expand vocational and science programs.

In March, the district will begin the process to borrow $100 million to address items on its five-year capital plan, including renovations and additions at Carlos E. Haile Middle School and Tara Elementary School, earlier than previously planned.

Some schools are already seeing improvements while others will undergo renovations and additions in the next five years.

Lakewood Ranch High School, which is over capacity, will have a new wing while the district continues work on Gene Witt Elementary School. Tara Elementary School and Braden River Middle School are also in the process of additions and renovations.

Saunders said the district could look at a property near Premier Sports Campus as a location for a new elementary school as growth continues in East County.


A past of challenges and successes

Saunders’ start as superintendent wasn’t always smooth sailing.

The Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General opened an investigation into Saunders in 2016 when she was the district’s deputy superintendent of instruction as a result of the charges that she inflated the district’s graduation rates.

In 2018, former Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart announced two state violations and five rule 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.

Angela Lindsey, the principal of Dr. Mona Jain Middle School, Mona Jain and Cynthia Saunders, superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, congratulate Mona Jain Middle students on their academic success. File photo.

In October 2019, the state’s Education Practices Commission rejected a proposed settlement between the Florida Department of Education and Saunders.

Rather than thinking about the investigation, Saunders said she focuses on the district’s future and ensuring the health and safety of the students and employees while trying to provide an excellent education.

“It was an allegation that we certainly deny, and I have not heard anything, so I don’t focus on it at all,” Saunders said.

A little over a year after the settlement was rejected, the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations named Saunders the 2020 STAR Superintendent of the Year for her support and dedication to the Manatee Education Foundation.

“It was a wonderful recognition, but that recognition was due to the partnerships that our district has with the community leaders and community agencies,” Saunders said. “It does show the cohesiveness of Manatee County and how everyone is trying to rally around and support us and ensure that our students are successful.”

In her two years as superintendent, Saunders has seen the opening of Dr. Mona Jain Middle School in Lakewood Ranch, the ongoing renovations and addition at Gene Witt Elementary School and additions and renovations at other East County schools.

The district has seen academic success as well. When Saunders started with the district as the executive director of secondary schools in 2013, the district had 18 D or F schools. By 2019, the district didn’t have any F schools and only two D schools.

Most recently, the district was hit with unexpected challenges in March from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saunders had to lead the district through a complete transition from full-time, on-campus learning to e-learning every day.

Over the summer, Saunders and district officials had to devise a plan to safely reopen schools and came up with three options for families: full-time on campus, full-time e-learning or a hybrid schedule. The hybrid schedule had students on campus two days per week and at home with e-learning three days per week.

Saunders said the district has done “amazingly well” in tackling the challenges.

“We were concerned there would be a rampant spread if someone was infected in the building, but that didn’t happen,” Saunders said. 

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