Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hernando teachers reprimanded over political e-mail

BROOKSVILLE — Three weeks before Hernando County voters would decide the fate of a veteran School Board member, Jessica Nicolai sent an e-mail to her fellow kindergarten teachers at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.

The message, according to district investigation documents released Monday: "Vote for Cynthia Moore," the retired teacher challenging four-term incumbent Sandra Nicholson.

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

The reason for the missive: Nicholson and two other board members had supported a move to do away with mandatory service hours for parents of students attending Challenger and another magnet school. She encouraged teachers to "vote them out."

Now Nicolai's personnel file contains a formal letter of reprimand from superintendent Bryan Blavatt 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. Mann has since resigned.

Blavatt also sent letters of "direction" to Challenger principal Sue Stoops and assistant principal Cindy Stewart warning them to nip in the bud conversations that could lead employees to discuss politics on the job.

The superintendent directed administrators to remind employees that district policy forbids employees from soliciting support for political candidates during work hours. The policy also forbids using school equipment — including e-mail — at any time for political purposes.

"While I understand you may not be directly responsible for the violation, you led a discussion that opened the opportunity for staff to solicit support for a political candidate, which is a violation of School Board policy," Blavatt wrote to Stoops.

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, Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney — agreed to drop the service hour requirement.

At the meeting, attendees discussed where the remaining two candidates stood on the issue. Bonfield and Sweeney had already won re-election in August, but Nicholson would face Moore in a runoff on Nov. 2.

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

Nicolai wrote a summary of the meeting for her kindergarten team and included the endorsement for Moore, urging the recipients to share the message with friends and family.

"I never said the information should be shared with parents," Nicolai told district officials, according to summary notes from Nicolai's Nov. 16 predetermination hearing.

Mann misunderstood, however, and 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 the following week by a margin of 38 votes.

Nicolai, who is the daughter of Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai, said she was unaware that the message violated policy. She hired the Hogan Law Firm in Brooksville, which noted her clean record since joining the district in 2006 and suggested a verbal warning. Nicolai sent Blavatt a letter of apology on Nov. 16, and she received her reprimand the next day.

Mann was planning to retire at the end of the year but decided to make an early exit because of the controversy, Stoops said.

"She was embarrassed and just truly devastated by the whole thing," Stoops said. "She was such a great teacher; it's unfortunate she had to go out on a negative note."

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

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or

Hernando teachers reprimanded over political e-mail 11/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 29, 2010 4:31pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Florida GDP growth in first quarter 2017 ranks 21st among states, still outpacing U.S.

    Economic Development

    Florida's gross domestic product or GDP rose 1.4 percent in the first quarter, slightly faster than the nation's growth of 1.2 percent and placing Florida 21st among the states for growth rates, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

    Not too hot. Not too cold.

    These Jackson Square Townhomes began hitting the west Hillsborough County market late last year and continued to be sold into the first quarter of 2017. The real estate sector was the biggest driver of Florida's gross domestic product, which rose 1.4 percent in the first quartrer of 2017.  [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
  2. Coming to Netflix in August: 'The Defenders,' 'Death Note' and more

    Krysten Ritter, Finn Jones, Charlie Cox and Mike Colter in Marvel's The Defenders.
  3. Report: $36 million worth of guns stolen in Florida in four years

    Public Safety

    An estimated $36 million worth of guns was stolen in Florida from 2012 to 2015, according to an analysis released this week by the Center for American Progress.

    Broken glass litters the floor of Tampa Arms Co. after thieves drove a pickup  through the front of the gun store and stole more than 40 weapons, including handguns and semiautomatic rifles. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
  4. A 94-year-old's tricycle was stolen and St. Petersburg police need help finding it (w/video)


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police are working to unite a 94-year-old man with his motorized tricycle that was stolen outside of a CVS.

    Police are working to unite a 94-year-old man with his motorized tricycle that was stolen outside of a CVS. Richard Griffin used the bike as his main means of transportation, police said, and doesn't have the $2,700 he'd need to replace it. Police released surveillance video of the theft on July 26, 2017,  a week after a man made off with the bike, hoping it might help them find the trike's captor. [Photo from video]
  5. Whale shark captured on video by diver near Naples


    A man scuba diving near Naples captured a giant whale shark on video, a rare treat in these waters.

    A man diving near Naples took video of this giant whale shark.