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School chief should offer a commitment

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 13, 2001


John Sanders should not be faulted for trying to better himself by applying to be superintendent of the Lee County School District.

The job pays a lot more (up to $50,000 more), and frankly, Lee County is a more happening place, both professionally and recreationally, for a 65-year-old man and his wife who plan to retire in a few years. Gosh, they've got a commercial airport, sandy beaches, a university, professional baseball in the spring, and scads more golf courses and restaurants than Hernando County.

But none of those good reasons for leaving Hernando County change the fact that Sanders took a gamble when he applied for that job only a couple of months before the School Board here was scheduled to go through the annual process of evaluating him and renewing his contract. And he can't escape the reality that, even though his bid for a better job is history, he has sown seeds of doubt and instability in the minds of board members and his staff. The question becomes: Will those seeds grow, or will Sanders be able to nip them in the bud?

Even those who understand why Sanders was willing to leave Hernando County will speculate whether he has his eye on another job. But more worrisome to Sanders is whether those same forgiving folks also will question his loyalty and dedication to solving the numerous challenges that beg his attention here.

Shortly after board member Jim Malcolm learned Sanders was job hunting, he gave a pointed summary of his concerns in an interview with Times education writer Robert King.

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

And those are only the obvious problems.

If Lee County had picked Sanders, it clearly would have created a hardship on Hernando County, and the School Board would have been forced to put other things on hold while it launched the search for a replacement.

The board can't allow itself to be put in that position again. Its members need to get it in writing from Sanders that he'll stay put for the full-term of his contract. They must insist on strong, consistent and dependable leadership. If Sanders won't agree to a multiyear commitment, as he would have been asked to do in Fort Myers, then the board should not extend his contact any longer than he is willing to commit.

For now, Sanders should be thankful three board members apparently are still in his corner, and he should do what he can to grease the skids for his evaluation, which was postponed until August. He needs to assure the board that he's here to stay.

Sanders should understand he is vulnerable. Two of the five board members, Malcolm and Gail Coleman, have already said they are not inclined to extend his contract. Part of that has to do with his recent overture to Lee County, and part of it stems from long-standing criticisms about his only-tell-'em-what-they-need-to-know management style. There's an election next year and, depending on a host of variables, it could yield a third vote to send Sanders on an involuntary job hunt.

To reiterate, Sanders should not be faulted for trying to get a better job. But he also has to expect -- and accept -- there will be a price to pay for his wanderlust.

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