Manatee superintendent Cynthia Saunders' future in the district will be the subject of discussion at Tuesday's School Board meeting

BRADENTON — The Manatee County School Board will discuss a long-term contract for current interim superintendent Cynthia Saunders on Tuesday — a contract that once seemed to be a sure thing but has been complicated by the state Department of Education's allegations that Saunders fraudulently inflated the district's graduation rate.

Despite a determined opposition and the possibility of state sanctions, it appeared Saunders has the board support she needs to secure a long-term deal. Board members Charlie Kennedy and Scott Hopes both expressed varying degrees of support for Saunders, saying she was vital to maintaining stability in the district.

“There are serious questions that are still unanswered as far as the investigation,” Kennedy said. “… but we also have a school district to run. We want to maintain a stable school district and stable leadership.”

If board Chairman Dave Miner, Saunders' staunchest supporter on the board thus far, remains true to his position, that would provide the necessary votes for a long-term deal. Miner, along with board Vice Chairwoman Gina Messenger and board member James Golden, did not return calls seeking comment.

Under a proposed contract posted to the board’s agenda, Saunders’ tenure as superintendent would go into effect March 1 and run through June 30, 2022, with a proposed salary of $196,000.

It has been been roughly two months since the board was originally scheduled to decide on the issue. Saunders appeared to be on the fast track to landing a long-term contract in December until a scathing report from former Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart was released days before the scheduled discussion. Stewart alleged that Saunders fraudulently inflated the district's graduation rate by classifying high school dropouts as home school transfer students between 2013 and 2015. The board delayed the decision until more information came out. Since then, there has been no resolution to the case, and it will likely not go before a judge for a settlement hearing until late this spring.

The DOE, along with former district administrators and current employees, have said that Saunders instructed staff to remove students who were unlikely to graduate and classify them as home-school transfers, without parental consent or intention to actually home-school their child. She has requested a settlement option with a formal hearing, meaning she will “neither admit nor deny the allegations in the administrative complaint, but wishes to negotiate a settlement,” according to paperwork she filed Dec. 13.

Saunders did not tell board members about the ongoing investigation last year when they were considering her for the interim superintendent position last summer, despite having been questioned by DOE investigators on the matter one day before the board voted to offer her a contract. Former Manatee superintendent Diana Greene, who is a close friend and mentor to Saunders, disregarded instructions from the Office of Inspector General to place a copy of their investigation into Saunders' personnel file.

The worst-case scenario for Saunders would be state revocation of her educator's license. However, state law does not require superintendents to hold an educator's license, and having a license revoked does not automatically mean a superintendent must step down, Florida School Board Association Executive Director Andrea Messina said.

Hopes said that the district has reviewed the DOE's allegations and has serious questions about the charges.

“There is no empirical evidence that Cynthia Saunders, with intent, directed people to put in a code if those individuals knew that the student wasn’t going to home-school,” Hopes said.

Kennedy and Hopes both suggested allowing Saunders to finish her career in Manatee and conducting a national search for her replacement while she leads the district. District spokesman Mike Barber said Saunders had roughly two more years until she qualified for retirement benefits from the state.

Saunders has declined to comment on the record about the specifics of her allegations beyond a statement that she read in January that characterized the DOE report as unexpected and random.

"On a personal note, I have been disappointed — but not discouraged — by the seemingly sudden array of accusations alleged against me," Saunders said at the Jan. 8 board meeting. "During almost three decades of prior service in public education in Florida, my record has been of the utmost integrity."