The vote was supposed to take place at a school board meeting last December but was postponed after it was alleged that Cynthia Saunders boosted the school district's graduation rates through fraudulent practices.
Just days before the scheduled vote, Saunders received a letter from then Education Commissioner Pam Stewart addressing the allegations. Ryan McKinnon, a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune newspaper, says Saunders failed to mention she was under an active investigation before being considered for the superintendent position.
“This letter was sort of characterized by Saunders as totally out of the blue and unexpected but it was really the culmination of more than two years of an investigation,” he said. “She had actually been questioned the day before the school board voted back in June to offer her a contract as the interim superintendent. So in all reality she knew that this report was coming, whether it exonerated her or found fault.”
Saunders is accused by the state of fraudulently boosting Manatee County’s graduation rate by directing subordinates to code high school dropouts as home school transfers in 2015 and 2016.
"What folks who worked under her have told the DOE and have told me is basically that it was a strategy to improve the district's graduation rate,” said McKinnon. "From 2013 to 2015, the number of seniors withdrawing to homeschool increased by 700 percent which is what initially got the DOE’s attention.”
After the letter from the state was received, a school district lawyer issued a statement rebutting the claims against Saunders saying they were 'based upon surmise and speculation and lacks any evidentiary basis.'
“The basic defense that Ms. Saunders has offered has been that it was more of a procedural kerfuffle than any sort of intentional effort to improve the graduation rate,” said McKinnon.
In his reporting, McKinnon found Manatee County School Board members to be mixed on support for Saunders.
“They're in a tough spot because she has brought a level of stability to the district in many ways, he said. “So the board has to choose between, "do we want to start a search process and begin interviewing candidates and have another interim and just continue the drama or do we want to try to have some sort of stability and keep Ms. Saunders in there even as she's under this investigation for alleged fraud." She has a couple of really strong supporters on the school board particularly Dave Miner and Scott Hopes. The other three members have been a little bit more noncommittal.”
One thing that every board member has said, is that they were not informed about the allegations. Former Manatee County Schools superintendent Diana Greene, who now holds a similar position in Duval County, rebuts those claims.
McKinnon says the state investigation occurred during a pivotal time for the Manatee County School District.
“Former superintendent Diana Greene says that she briefed the board every time she got an update from the DOE about the investigation but the timing of those updates was particularly inconvenient,” he noted. “Initial word of the investigation came in October 2016, just as the district was campaigning for a half-cent sales tax extension and then further reports came a year later just as the district was ramping up for a property tax referendum. There were board members that were actively opposed to the referendum and so notifying them would have certainly hurt the referendum’s efforts.”
According to McKinnon’s reporting, Saunders case likely will not be settled for several months.
In the meantime, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday, February 12.
“They're going to be discussing it during their workshop and then ultimately voting on whether to offer her a contract,” said McKinnon. “All of that could change but that is what is on the agenda at this point.”