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Sanders ends his quest for job in Detroit

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Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Eugene Sanders yesterday pulled himself out of the running for a position operating up to 15 charter schools in Detroit but said he'll continue looking for a new job because he foresees conflicts with the district's newly elected school board members.

"My understanding is that the goal of the new board members is to relieve me of my duties," Mr. Sanders told The Blade yesterday. "At least two of the board members ran on a platform of change and it's my understanding that they have already begun to identify potential candidates to replace me."

He declined to say who those candidates might be.

Darlene Fisher and Robert Torres, who were elected Nov. 8 - defeating incumbent Steven Thomas and three other challengers - campaigned together under the slogan, "3 for change."

Ms. Fisher, who has openly criticized Mr. Sanders and his administration in the past, said neither she nor Mr. Torres has ever expressed a desire to replace the superintendent. "No one has ever said that we want to put a new guy in," she said. "He is the only one perpetuating that rumor, and he needs to stop saying that."

Ms. Fisher declined further comment.

Mr. Torres said he wants to reserve judgment about Mr. Sanders until working with him and the other board members, beginning Jan. 1.

"My position has always been that I think he is a talented individual and, with the right kind of leadership on the school board, we will continue to make gains," Mr. Torres said. "I have never mentioned or commented on his status as superintendent. Let's see how he works with the new board and determine that later."

Also elected to the Toledo Board of Education this month was Steven Steel, who was endorsed by the district's teachers' union. During the campaign, Mr. Steel aligned himself with Mr. Thomas and candidate Jim Whiteman, a part-time professor at the University of Toledo.

Mr. Steel said he was surprised by Mr. Sanders' comments to The Blade yesterday.

"Obviously, he has done a really good job, and we have to maintain that same progress," he said. "This seems really rash because we don't even have a board yet, and I guess I'd like to hear from him what type of pressure he thinks is being put on him."

The district has made academic gains in recent years. The high school graduation rate increased from 58.5 percent during the 1998-1999 school year to 76.6 percent for 2003-2004.

Yesterday, Mr. Sanders said the district is poised to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent over the next five years.

"I liken it to an investment," he said. "Most people want to get rich overnight and it typically doesn't work that way. Real investors invest over time with a consistent strategy and a strategic plan. The sudden urge for change at this point would be a disruption to the system."

Among the reforms Mr. Sanders has enacted during his tenure are the creation of two single-gender schools and a district uniform policy. Test scores also have improved under his watch - increasing the district's state rating from the lowest possible label of academic emergency up to continuous improvement, the equivalent of C.

Mr. Sanders, superintendent in Toledo since August, 2000, now receives pay and compensation totaling $194,179 annually. He has a contract with the district through 2009, which would make it difficult for the school board to remove him.

However, Mr. Sanders said Mr. Torres and Ms. Fisher could "make the environment not conducive to staying."

He said requests by Ms. Fisher or Mr. Torres to stay at the helm of the 30,774-student school district would not be genuine.

Larry Sykes, president of the school board, said it would be a great loss to the district if Mr. Sanders quits.

"Our leadership is proven," Mr. Sykes said. "Who are you going to replace [Mr.] Sanders with if you already have the best?"

In September, Mr. Sanders, an outspoken critic of Ohio's charter schools as a drain on traditional public schools, confirmed he interviewed with the Michigan-based Skillman Foundation and Thompson Foundation for a job overseeing such schools in Detroit.

At the time, Mr. Sanders refused to talk about the job interview, but yesterday he said that he was sought out by a head-hunting firm for the job and he initially hadn't pursued it.

He was criticized by many, including the head of the Toledo Public Schools teachers' union, for even considering a job with charter schools. So far this school year, the district has lost 5,941 students to charter schools. However, 963 of those students attend Toledo Public-sponsored charter schools.

Mr. Sanders also was a finalist last year for the top job in the public school district in the nation's capital.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.

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