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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 tmarrero@sptimes.com.

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

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