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Hernando School Board member wants Challenger K-8 principal fired

BROOKSVILLE — A School Board member targeted by a politically-charged e-mail sent to Challenger K-8 teachers and parents in October has called for the firing of longtime principal Sue Stoops, her assistant principal and the kindergarten teacher involved.

Dianne Bonfield made the request in a prepared statement at the end of Tuesday night's board meeting. She called the matter "serious business" that warrants more than the minor discipline meted out last month by superintendent Bryan Blavatt.

"Several employees at Challenger K-8 made poor decisions and violated board policy in trying to influence citizens' votes," Bonfield said. "They used school equipment during working hours to carry out their misdeeds. One cannot say with certainty that their actions influenced the outcome of the election, but they very well might have."

"We need to send a message to our employees that violations of policy will not be tolerated and that severe discipline will go to those that do," Bonfield continued. "A slap on the wrist is not adequate. I feel that the only proper discipline is suspension followed by termination. Only then will employees understand that policies must followed."

Bonfield, in an interview Wednesday, said she did not speak to Blavatt about the matter before or after making the statement. She said she understands Blavatt is charged with tending to personnel matters and board members take a hands-off approach until the superintendent brings them recommendations for termination.

But she said she felt compelled to make the statement during the board meeting, the first since local media reported the outcome of the case.

"I don't strongarm anybody," Bonfield said. "I voice my opinion, and what happens after that, happens. (He) heard it as well as everybody else."

Blavatt did not respond to Bonfield's statement during the meeting. In an interview Wednesday, he said he respects her rights and desire to make the request.

"I listened and heard what she had to say, but in reality we did a very extensive investigation, and what people pay me the big bucks for here is to make decisions like these," Blavatt said. "Since there's no new evidence that I'm aware of, I don't know if it would serve a purpose to reconsider."

Three weeks before the Nov. 2 general election, Jessica Nicolai sent an e-mail to her fellow kindergarten teachers at Challenger. The message: "Vote for Cynthia Moore," the retired teacher challenging four-term incumbent Sandra Nicholson.

The e-mail also targeted Bonfield and fellow incumbent John Sweeney, though both had already won re-election in the August primary. Nicolai encouraged teachers to "vote them out."

"Tell friends and family, too!" Nicolai wrote.

The reason for the missive: The three board members had supported a move to end mandatory service hours for parents of students attending Challenger and Chocachatti Elementary. Nicholson had also voiced support for starting Challenger's magnet program for science and mathematics at a higher grade than kindergarten because older students can show a record of aptitude in those subjects.

Blavatt gave Nicolai a formal letter of reprimand for using a district e-mail to send a candidate endorsement. Another Challenger kindergarten teacher, Jayneen Mann, received a similar letter for including Nicolai's message in an e-mail to parents of children in Mann's class. She later resigned.

Blavatt sent letters of "direction" to Stoops and assistant principal Cindy Stewart warning them to avoid conversations that could lead employees to discuss politics on the job. And he directed the administrators to remind employees that district policy forbids employees from soliciting support for political candidates during work hours. The policy also forbids use of school equipment — including e-mail — at any time for political purposes.

According to the investigation documents, Stoops brought up the issues during a team leader meeting on Oct. 8. That was a few days after a School Board workshop in which three of five members — Nicholson, Bonfield and Sweeney — agreed to drop the service hour requirement.

"I was just telling them what occurred at the School Board meeting," Stoops told the Times last month. "It was not a political meeting."

At the meeting, attendees discussed where the remaining two candidates stood on the issue. Nicholson would face Moore in a runoff on Nov. 2. Nicolai wrote a summary of the meeting for her kindergarten team and included the endorsement for Moore.

"I never said the information should be shared with parents," Nicolai told district officials.

But Mann pasted the political portion of Nicolai's message into an e-mail sent on Oct. 12 to parents of the students in her class. She used her district account.

Mann said she was not aware of the district's policy on political solicitation. She was given the letter of reprimand on Nov. 4, two days after Moore defeated Nicholson in a race so close it triggered a recount. Moore was declared the winner by a margin of 38 votes.

Nicolai, who is the daughter of Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai, told district officials she was unaware that the message violated policy. She sent Blavatt a letter of apology Nov. 16 and got her reprimand the next day.

Stoops, Stewart and Nicolai declined comment Wednesday, deferring questions to Blavatt.

All three have clean personnel files. Stoops started with the district in 1968, left in 1976 and returned in 1986. She has two years left in the state's deferred retirement program. Stewart joined the district in 1991.

Mann, who also had a clean record, was planning to retire at the end of the year but decided to make an early exit because she was "embarrassed and just truly devastated" by the controversy, Stoops said last month.

There are some occasions in which the School Board should press the superintendent in personnel matters, but the board should trust Blavatt's judgment in this case, chairman James Yant said.

"When dealing with employees, especially with the economic conditions we're in, we need to show compassion," he said. "All of us make mistakes."

The incident prompted Heather Martin, executive director of business services, to recommend that specific language be added to the staff handbook to make the clear the district policy on political endorsements. A reminder of the policy should also be sent out to district staff during future election cycles, Martin wrote in a memo to Blavatt.

Faced with pleas from parents and teachers, the board on Nov. 2 — Election Day — reversed course and kept the service hours mandate but dropped the penalty of booting out the children of parents who don't comply.

Bonfield said she and her colleagues have students' best interests in mind when considering changes at the magnet schools.

"It's only to make things better and fairer that this board has discussed these things," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando School Board member wants Challenger K-8 principal fired 12/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 8:32pm]

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