Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Jesse Mendoza | March 16, 2022
Manatee County Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders recently agreed to a settlement with the Florida Department of Education for overseeing practices between 2014 and 2016 that falsely inflated graduation rates by reclassifying high school dropouts as home-schooled students.
According to the settlement agreement, Saunders “neither admits nor denies, but elects not to contest the allegations…” The agreement includes a two-year probationary period that has no impact on her current job.
Saunders also agreed to pay a $2,000 fine to the Education Practices Commission within two years, to take two three-credit hour college level courses in education ethics and at-risk students within two years. She must receive a B grade, or higher, in the course. Alternatively she can take four micro-credential courses and attain a passing grade.
The agreement also said copies of the letter of reprimand will be placed in her certification file with the Department of Education and with her personnel file with the school district.
The case had marred Saunders’ tenure as superintendent since late 2018, when the School Board learned about the state investigation of the practices.
The settlement agreement was accepted by a panel of the Education Practices Commission on March 2 in Orlando. The commission is composed of teachers, administrators, parents, law enforcement officials, former school board members and former superintendents.
The commission “believes that educators must exercise a measure of leadership beyond reproach,” Presiding Officer Kathy Wilks wrote in the letter or reprimand sent to Saunders March 8. “The Commission cannot condone any act that bears negatively on the profession’s integrity, nor can the public who employs us.”
According to the “revised settlement agreement,” Saunders learned of the graduation inflation rate process through training she received as a principal at the Marion County School district.
As a result, some students during the 2014-15 school year were improperly classified, which artificially raised the district’s graduation rates. Of the 121 students that dropped out of school, only six were properly coded as having done so. Others were improperly classified as having switched to home schooling.
“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,” Saunders said in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, the lessons I have learned taught me a lot about myself and leadership that has served me well in my current position.”
The settlement includes a two-year probation period, but it only applies if Saunders is employed in a position that requires a Florida educator’s certificate. The district does not require an educator’s certificate for her current role, so the probation does not affect her status as superintendent. The probation would begin upon her re-employment in a position that does require the certification.
“Ms. Saunder’s employment … does not require a Florida Educator’s certificate, therefore she is not under probation,” Manatee School District spokesman Michael Barber said in an email.
“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 allegations and findings from the investigation focused on the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, and Saunders said graduation rates have not been affected since then.
“Like most educators, spending your professional life helping young people pursue their dreams has been much more than a career choice for me – it has been a calling. That is why accepting this settlement is bittersweet.”SCHOOL DISTRICT OF MANATEE COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT CYNTHIA SAUNDERS
“Serving as an educator in the state of Florida for more than 32 years has been a tremendous privilege,” Saunders said. “Like most educators, spending your professional life helping young people pursue their dreams has been much more than a career choice for me – it has been a calling.”
“That is why accepting this settlement is bittersweet.”