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Sanders' job not clear-cut

When he finished second in Lee County's superintendent search July 10, John Sanders said with certainty that he would not consider a fallback offer from Lee County should they fail to negotiate a contract with their No. 1 choice.

"We have to get on with our lives here," said Sanders, Hernando County's school superintendent. "And I can't have that still hanging over the district."

But on Thursday, when Lee County's No. 1 choice decided he wasn't a good match for the Fort Myers-based district and walked away from the job, Sanders was not willing to close the door on a second chance.

"We'll see," Sanders said.

Sanders hasn't been given a fallback offer from Lee County.

But, as the Lee County School Board announced a special meeting for Monday to decide its next move, Sanders had a handful of phone messages on his desk from Fort Myers reporters looking for his comments on the situation.

Sanders said it would be "presumptuous" for him to comment on whether he's open again to a job. "I'm not going to react one way or the other," Sanders said. "I've not been approached."

Jack Noennig, a retired superintendent from Rochester, Minn., began negotiating his contract with Lee County shortly after his selection. There was some give and take on health care benefits and his salary.

But eventually he agreed to $140,000 a year, $15,000 in moving expensive expenses, an $800-a-month car allowance, 25 vacation days a year, and performance bonuses worth 8 percent annually, or $11,200 a year.

Yet, after the Lee County board made some further revisions to the contract language crafted by their attorney, Noennig decided he was "not the right match for the Lee County Schools," according to a letter he sent the board's attorney.

"I believe that if board members micromanage their attorney, they will certainly micromanage the superintendent," Noennig wrote.

Katherine Boren, Lee County's School Board chairwoman, was not available for interviews, district spokesman John Dattola said.

The latest turn of events comes as it appeared Sanders had weathered the storm created by his interest in the job.

When Sanders became a candidate, Hernando County School Board Chairman Jim Malcolm said it created a sense of instability within the district. For that reason, Malcolm said he would oppose an extension of Sanders' current contract, which expires a year from now.

But, after reading comments from other board members in the newspaper, it became clear to Malcolm that he lacked the votes to block an extension for Sanders.

So, in a private discussion Wednesday, Malcolm said, he told Sanders he would support a contract extension, albeit with the condition that Sanders would have to pay the district up to $10,000 should he leave abruptly _ money that would pay for a superintendent's search.

During the chat, Malcolm said Sanders reiterated that he wouldn't look at a fallback offer from Lee County should it come his way.

"He told me the same thing, "That I can't leave the district holding.' So I thought those were noble sentiments," Malcolm said. "Noble, but different."

Different because, after all, Sanders was not Hernando County's first choice, either.

He accepted Hernando's superintendent job in 1995 after the board's No. 1 choice, Robert Myers of Lafayette, Ind., declined the district's $90,000 salary offer. Myers had wanted $100,000.

Ironically, Sanders accepted Hernando County's fallback offer July 18, 1995.

"I've learned a long time ago to never say never. But he did," Malcolm said. "It'll put everybody on edge again."

_ Times staff writer Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Discuss this and other issues in our Web-based discussion forum at