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Superintendent to stay in Hernando

The Lee County School Board selects a superintendent from Minnesota. John Sanders says he's glad to keep the job he has.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 11, 2001


John Sanders is staying put in Hernando County.

For the past month it looked as if Sanders, Hernando's superintendent of schools for the past six years, might be headed to Fort Myers to take over the top school job in Lee County.

From a field of 54 candidates, Sanders emerged last week as one of two finalists.

But Tuesday the Lee County School Board deliberated for nearly three hours before voting unanimously to offer the job to Jack Noennig, the superintendent of schools in Rochester, Minn. That quickly, Sanders' monthlong romance with Lee County was history.

As was the case throughout the process, Sanders was philosophical about his fate Tuesday. Yes, there is disappointment in not getting the job, he said. But there is happiness, too, in being able to stay in a community and a job he enjoys.

"I couldn't win and I couldn't lose," he said.

Sanders landed his current job when Hernando's first choice for superintendent in 1995 declined the board's salary offer. But he told Lee County officials Tuesday not to bother calling him back if they cannot work out a deal with Noennig.

"We have to get on with our lives here, and I can't have that still hanging over the district," Sanders said. "I made up my mind (Monday)."

Sanders, 65, surprised many when his name appeared six weeks ago among Lee's crowded field of candidates. Most people who know Sanders expected him to finish his career in Hernando.

Always, Sanders had said he expected to stay at least until the county's fourth high school was built. And that's not scheduled until 2003. Yet Sanders found the Lee County job too enticing to pass up.

The salary offer -- between $135,000 and $150,000 plus incentives -- far eclipses the $97,000 he makes here. And such a bump would have dramatically boosted his state pension -- which is a percentage of the worker's average salary over the final five years of his or her career.

"Hey, I have a family, too," Sanders said unapologetically Tuesday.

Sanders' flirtation with Lee County drew heat from Hernando School Board Chairman Jim Malcolm. He said it brought instability to a district facing some monumental challenges, from balancing its budget to finding a way to pay for employee health insurance.

Malcolm has threatened to oppose the renewal of Sanders' contract this year. But at least three of the five board members say they will renew the deal anyway. A vote is expected in August.

Renewing the contract would guarantee Sanders a job for the next two years. A non-renewal would guarantee his job only for the next 12 months.

For his part, Sanders made it sound Tuesday as if he is finished job-hunting. "I just can't conceive of that coming up again," he said.

Word of the decision from Lee County surprised Cynthia Moore, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. She expected Sanders to get the job because he was the in-state candidate.

Moore said Sanders is viewed favorably by some teachers and with skepticism by others. "At least for us, we know what we have (in Sanders), and we are not going to have to look for somebody we don't really know," Moore said.

There was no such equivocality from Sanders' staff. Several said they wished Sanders his heart's desire while making it plain their desire was for him to stay.

"I think the headline should say, "Hernando County wins!' " said Elaine Wooten, who oversees curriculum in the county's elementary schools. "I feel like their loss is our gain."

Apparently that was a sentiment echoed by others. In doing their research, Lee County board members said they heard repeatedly from people in Hernando County who wanted Sanders to stay.

"To me that's very gratifying," Sanders said.

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

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