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School chief's job hunt may imperil contract

The School Board chairman does not want to renew John Sanders' contract.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


Superintendent John Sanders' decision to apply for the top job in Lee County upset Hernando County School Board chairman Jim Malcolm.

So much so, in fact, that Malcolm doesn't want the board to renew Sanders' contract when it comes up for a vote next month. Without renewal, Sanders would be under contract only for the coming school year. With renewal, he would be under contract for two years.

"This could not have happened at a worse time," Malcolm said Wednesday.

"We're still trying to sort out the previous year's budget. We're trying to put together the next year's budget. We are in the process of trying to put together a multimillion-dollar (high school) technical center. We're bleeding red ink in health insurance. And now we stand the prospect of not having a superintendent in August."

Sanders, who is wrapping up his sixth year in Hernando County, caught many people by surprise last week when he applied for the Lee County superintendent's post.

The job, in a district nearly four times larger than Hernando, offers a salary of $135,000 to $150,000 plus incentive bonuses. Sanders, who makes $97,000 now, has complained that he is underpaid.

Aside from what he called "atrocious" timing, Malcolm said Sanders' flirtation with Lee County brings "unnecessary anxiety" to the school district.

"I am unwilling to gamble on the unknown," Malcolm said. "I think what is critical to the district is that we have long-term stability."

Sanders has said he isn't looking at Lee County to gain salary leverage with the board in Hernando. But Malcolm said Sanders has gained new leverage: He already had a year's salary guaranteed him by his current contract. Now he has another job possibility.

The board can regain some leverage with Sanders if it doesn't guarantee Sanders anything beyond the coming year, Malcolm said.

Malcolm and Sanders met for two hours Wednesday in a previously scheduled meeting to talk about the superintendent's annual evaluation. The Lee County job got much discussion. And Malcolm expressed his intention to oppose Sanders' contract renewal because of it.

"I know he is not happy about that," Malcolm said. "He believes that I am sending him the wrong message. I said, "Well, you have sent me the wrong message.' "

Sanders could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Even as chairman, Malcolm still needs two other board members to join him if Sanders' contract is to not be renewed. Right now, it's difficult to say whether he has the votes.

Board members Sandra Nicholson and John Druzbick have said they favor a renewal of Sanders' contract. Nicholson says now is not a good time to "change horses in midstream." Druzbick said the superintendent has done nothing to warrant not renewing his contract.

But board member Gail Coleman, elected to the board last fall, wants the board to hold a serious discussion of Sanders' contract and would not rule out opposing a renewal.

Job hunting aside, Coleman has grave concerns about Sanders' handling of district finances, his push for the self-insured health plan that is now $2-million in debt, and his failure to publicly denounce an employee's racial slur against former finance director Sara Perez.

If Coleman joined Malcolm, the swing vote would be left to Robert Wiggins.

Wiggins, now in his third year on the board, said Sanders has done a "very fine" job and that he is initially inclined to renew the contract. But Wiggins said he would listen to other board members and could be persuaded in another direction.

However the votes fall, Malcolm said the district will survive with or without Sanders. He said there are talented people already in the county who could fill the job, though he wouldn't name names.

Still, Malcolm said it's too soon to say Sanders will be gone within the year.

He is just one of 54 applicants in Lee County. And Malcolm said the superintendent feels his chances are slim, even though "someone" approached him about the job. In an interview last week with the Times, Sanders said only that he wasn't sure of his chances.

And Malcolm said that even if Sanders worked the coming year as a lame duck, it's possible the board could decide next spring to offer Sanders a new contract anyway.

"John Sanders is not a bad superintendent," Malcolm said. "If asked by the people in Lee County what I think of him, I will tell them he has done a good job."

- Times staff writer Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127.

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