Cooking the Books

Tuesday, Dec. 11 should have been a great day for Cynthia Saunders. The interim superintendent of Manatee County’s school system, who’d been serving since July 1, was poised to become the official superintendent—and get a nice raise, too. Then the Florida Department of Education stepped in and blew it all up.

State officials accused Saunders of misconduct during the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 as they launched an investigation of district policies. The state accused Saunders of violating professional ethics in misrepresenting data, using institutional privileges for personal advantage, failing to maintain honesty in all professional dealings, using coercive means to influence others, submitting fraudulent information—all in violation of Florida codes and statutes. Perhaps the most damning accusation was that Saunders manipulated the district’s graduation rate.

You might be asking why we should care about this situation here in Duval County. Well, Saunders was then deputy  superintendent of her district, and she served under Superintendent Diana Greene, the same superintendent who now holds the top spot for Duval County Public Schools. Indeed, Saunders became interim superintendent of Manatee County after her boss relocated to Duval. All of Saunders’ offenses, however, supposedly happened on Greene’s watch.

Furthermore, at least one Manatee County school board member thinks if anyone is responsible for what happened, it was Greene. The Bradenton Herald quoted Scott Hopes, who said, “Diana Greene was in charge, not Cynthia Saunders. I have every expectation that she’s going to challenge it, and she’ll have her day in court.”

The issue seems to stem from one alternate school whose students were unlikely to graduate. Instead of allowing their failure to affect the district’s graduation rate, someone reclassified the students The district blamed a retired assistant principal, saying it was shoddy paperwork on his behalf that led to the district’s woes. The employee, predictably, claims to be a scapegoat.

For her part, Greene does not believe that Saunders was involved in any wrongdoing: “Ms. Saunders is well known as a person of the highest ethics and character. The episode you reference occurred just as I became superintendent of Manatee. The school board was fully informed of the miscoding and corrective actions. The internal investigation concluded that Ms. Saunders directed staff to follow an approved process for coding students. I have full confidence in Ms. Saunders and the district’s actions at the time.”

For the most part, I am pleased with Superintendent Greene. While I think she has spent too much time hobnobbing with new friends at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund rather than rebuilding relationships with staff—communication between the district and teachers continues to be an issue—she’s off to a good start. All the more reason these accusations are troubling.

I was pleased when Greene’s predecessor, Nikolai Vitti, first came to town, too. Soon after his arrival, however, he engaged in the same unsettling behavior with which Saunders is now charged. During Vitti’s tenure, fear and intimidation were two of the tools he used most often. He didn’t respect teachers. He even admitted he often thought of them as replaceable widgets. Then there were accusations that Vitti used questionable means to raise the grades of the schools of which he was in charge in Miami, an issue local media never explored. Is any of that starting to sound familiar? His Miami experience helped Vitti get the job here, just like Greene’s Manatee County ‘success’ story propelled her to Duval.

Right now, these are only accusations—worrisome and serious accusations, to be sure, but still only accusations. The state has just begun its investigation. At least one Manatee County school board member, however, is pointing the finger at Greene as the accountable authority. Where does the buck stop?

If these allegations prove to be true, it’s not credible to think such misconduct happened without Greene’s knowledge, unless she was willfully ignorant after imposing her will on her subordinates to “get it done” at any cost. Even if Saunders was a rogue employee, it’s still bad management. Saunders’ good day might ultimately arrive, but probably not anytime soon. The investigation is expected to drag on for months. In the meantime, we are left with more questions—like what did Greene know and when?—than answers. Either way, local media outlets have a responsibility to let the people of Duval County know that Greene’s former deputy of the School District of Manatee County has been accused of some heinous violations.