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Manatee County Superintendent Cynthia Saunders settles with state over graduation rate inflation

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Manatee County Schools
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As part of a settlement with the state, Manatee County Supt. Cynthia Saunders neither admitted nor denied allegations that she helped inflate the district's graduation rate.

Saunders will pay a $2,000 fine to the Education Practices Commission, have a letter of reprimand placed in her file, and take courses on ethics.

Manatee County School Superintendent Cynthia Saunders reached a settlement with the Florida Department of Education earlier this month over her involvement in potentially inflating the district's graduation rate.

As part of the settlement, Saunders will pay a $2,000 fine to the Education Practices Commission, have a letter of reprimand placed in her file, and take courses on ethics.

The state accused Saunders of establishing a system where most high school dropouts were re-classified as transferring to home schooling, a process that may have boosted graduation rates from about 2014 to 2016.

According to the settlement, Saunders learned of the method during training as a principal in Marion County.

While Saunders neither admits nor denies the allegations, she chose not to contest them. In a prepared statement, she said accepting the agreement is bittersweet.

“One of the lessons I have learned through this experience is that I could have done a better job of implementing changes upon entering a new school district, different from the one I previously served,” she said.

“Ultimately, the lessons I have learned taught me a lot about myself and leadership that has served me well in my current position.”

Saunders is not currently under probation. But the settlement states that if she takes a position that requires a Florida educator’s certificate, she will undergo two years of probation.

Michael Barber, spokesman for the school district, said in a statement that her employment as superintendent does not require the certificate.

“In addition, she has no intention at this time of entering into a position that would require such a certificate, although she did faithfully and impeccably carry such a certificate as required during most of her more than 32 years in public education in the state of Florida,” he said.

The settlement also stipulates that Saunders must take two college courses or four micro-credential courses on education ethics and at-risk students.

An earlier settlement reached in 2019 between the FLDOE and Saunders was rejected by the Education Practices Commission.

That settlement also included an ethics course, but only if Saunders worked in a job requiring an educator certificate. Since she doesn't hold such a job, members of the commission felt that wasn't a real punishment.

Read more: Settlement Rejected By State In Manatee Superintendent Fraud Case

Kathy Wilks, co-chairperson of the Commission, also issued a letter of reprimand to Saunders. The letter will be placed in the superintendent’s state certification file — and a copy will be sent to the Manatee County School board.

“The Commission, composed of teachers, administrators, parents, law enforcement officials, former school board members and former superintendents, believes that educators must exercise a measure of leadership beyond reproach,” Wilks wrote. “The Commission cannot condone any act that bears negatively on the profession’s integrity, nor can the public who employ us.”

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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