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Published: Friday, 7/23/2004

Sanders looks into D.C.'s top school job; interview is slated for today

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Superintendent Eugene Sanders will interview today for the top job at the school district in the nation's capital after being invited to apply for the position, he said yesterday.

"I'm very happy here in Toledo, but it's an opportunity that happened and it's the only opportunity I'm looking at," Mr. Sanders said. "There are a few people who are interviewing this weekend, I understand. I don't know the number, but I would imagine there would be a handful."

Eighteen months ago, the Toledo Board of Education and Mr. Sanders agreed to a contract extension in which he committed to stay with Toledo Public Schools until 2009. The pact prohibits him from talking to other school boards or consultants about other jobs without school board approval.

But board President David Welch yesterday said he gave permission for the interview in Washington. "He's got a very powerful story to tell about his success here," Mr. Welch said. "This would be a great opportunity for him and a plus for Washington."

The Washington school district has about twice the enrollment of the Toledo district.

Mr. Sanders, 47, who was paid $182,956 last year, was a professor and chairman of the department of educational administration and supervision at Bowling Green State University when he was selected by a 4-1 board vote in 2000 as superintendent of Toledo Public Schools. Former board member Terry Glazer, who had supported businessman Bruce Douglas for the position, was the dissenting vote.

Since then, the district has improved proficiency test scores, passed operating and construction levies, approved contracts with all its unions, begun an $821 million construction project that ultimately will replace or renovate all buildings in the district, and opened two single-gender elementary schools.

The stated goals of Mr. Sanders early in his tenure were to pass the November, 2000, operating levy, open the Old West End academy, and lead the district out of academic emergency. The first two have been met. His goals for the 2003-2004 year included achieving passage of levy renewals, increasing enrollment, reducing student suspensions and dropout rates, increasing the district's performance on the state proficiency tests, and creating a budget reduction plan.

Suspensions are down, the graduation rate is up, and a reduction package balanced the district's budget this year. However, charter schools have contributed to the district's continually falling enrollment, the first attempt at last year's levy renewal vote failed, and district leaders have said they need to continue to improve relations with the community.

District leaders are hopeful they will improve on the new state report cards, scheduled to be released next month, but the district remains in academic emergency at least until then. Still, board officers yesterday credited Mr. Sanders with making plenty of progress in the roughly 34,000-student district.

"He's a team builder. He's one who works in complete collaboration. He has actually done in three years and definitely in four years what we had projected would take five years," Mr. Welch said.

When the Toledo school board in January, 2003, approved his contract extension until 2009, Mr. Sanders said he was committed to lead the district until nearly the end of the decade. He hasn't been job hunting, he said yesterday, but when the call came for the Washington position, he was intrigued enough to interview.

"What interested me is that it's the nation's capital," he said. "I think I could certainly bring forward an academic direction that could benefit the district."

Mr. Sanders said he was contacted by Nancy Noeske, a consultant with an educational search firm called PROACT Search Inc., based in Milwaukee, about applying for the job. Ms. Noeske did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, said she wished Mr. Sanders success with his new job prospect.

"We've had to train a lot of superintendents. It looks like we might have to train another one," she said.

When the Toledo school board hired Mr. Sanders in August, 2000, then-board President Larry Sykes predicted the Sandusky native eventually would leave for another district. "He has not realized his potential, and I think here he will," Mr. Sykes said at the time "When he does, the hawks will be out."

The announcement that the Washington district is considering Mr. Sanders did not surprise Mr. Sykes. "I think it's great for Toledo in the sense that someone would be invited to be one among two or three who are invited to interview," he said.

The 64,200-student district in the nation's capital has effectively been looking for a superintendent since Paul Vance announced his resignation in November. A committee of district and city leaders has had several candidates they thought would fill the position, said Andre Johnson, a spokesman for Washington council member Kevin Chavous, a member of the council's education committee.

"We're looking for somebody who can definitely turn the program around. We have serious problems with the educational system here. We're looking for a candidate who's not going to be afraid to kind of throw a stick of dynamite in it and start all over again," he said.

A leading candidate, Carl Cohn, former superintendent of the Long Beach, Calif., schools, withdrew his application last month. A former frontrunner, former New York City schools Chancellor Rudolph Crew, turned down the job to head to the Miami-Dade County, Florida, superintendency. Other previous finalists have included Candy Lee, a former airline executive, and Stephen Jones, superintendent in Syracuse, N.Y., according to published reports.

Several district officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Johnson, who did not know how soon a decision would be made or what the compensation package could include, said the selection panel would seek at least a five-year commitment from any candidate. The district has had four superintendents in the last eight years, and students' standardized test scores are among the nation's lowest. Mr. Sanders said helping the district improve is a challenge he could be willing to take.

"The nation's capital, in my opinion, should have the model urban district in the nation and, quite frankly, one of the best in the world," he said.

Mr. Sanders, seventh of 11 children, began his career in 1980 as a Sandusky High School social studies teacher. He became an assistant principal in Oberlin, Ohio, and then Lorain, Ohio, before receiving his doctorate and becoming a full-time faculty member at Bowling Green State University in 1993. As a professor, he held contracts with the Toledo school district, including coordination of a $40,000 contract for professional development for elementary principals. He wrote a 1999 book, Urban School Leadership: Issues and Strategies, which argues that the key to improving districts is collaboration among parents, schools, and community.

Contact Sandra Svoboda at:

svoboda@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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