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Settlement Rejected By State In Manatee Superintendent Fraud Case

Manatee County Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders
Cynthia Saunders signed the settlement with the Florida Department of Education in May, but the Education Practices Commission said she deserves more punishment. COURTESY MANATEE COUNTY SCHOOLS

The state's Education Practices Commission on Tuesday unanimously rejected a settlement agreement between the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) and Manatee County Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders.

In 2015, the FLDOE accused Saunders, then deputy superintendent for instruction, of reclassifying low-performing students as “home school transfers” in an attempt to boost graduation rates.

READ MORE: Manatee Offers Embattled Interim Superintendent Long-Term Contract

The settlement, signed in May, included a letter of reprimand, a $750 fine, and two years probation. It also included an ethics course, which would only be implemented if Saunders worked in a job requiring an educator certificate.

Since her current position does not require a certificate, members of the committee said a loophole was being taken advantage of and therefore the settlement didn’t have any real punishment.

“When we have teachers who alter grades … it is often the practice of this commission to suspend those individuals,” said presiding officer Christie Gold. “So to me, it is just unconscionable that we will allow someone who is serving in a leadership capacity in the district to get off without a similar sanction.”

Both Terry Harmon, Saunders’ attorney, and Bonnie Wilmot, the state’s attorney, presented the information that had been used to reach the settlement, with Wilmot stating that signing the settlement was punishment enough.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Saunders said she believes she will be exonerated in the end.

“As I explore all further options in this matter, I remain confident that I will prevail on the merits,” Saunders said. “I am grateful for the continued support and my focus remains on the mission of providing the best possible education for all Manatee County students.”

Alysia Cruz is the WUSF Stephen Noble news intern for the fall 2019 semester. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida in Communication and is now enrolled at USF St. Petersburg, pursuing her Master’s in Digital Journalism & Design concentrating on food writing.
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